Social media has rapidly become a defining paradigm for the 21st century. The meteoric rise of Facebook, Twitter, & YouTube has enabled people to connect, collaborate, & communicate globally with unprecedented ease. Local events quickly become international conversations, captured & shared across social media platforms. As the voice of the crowd grows louder all organizations are being drawn out of their curated marketing & PR departments and into broader social engagements in order to more fully participate in brand conversations, customer service issues, public relations management, and the authentic casualness inherent in real-world relationships. While business once had the luxury of broadcasting its finely-crafted messages out to passive markets, persuading customers through repetition and volume, the new social business relationship between customers & brands is defined by attention, engagement, & authenticity – and is often the result of peer relationships more than marketing & PR. Yet these same tools & workflows established by the dominant social platforms are making their way into the walls of the enterprise. User profiles, status updates, one-to-many messaging, and subscriber streams are becoming increasingly valuable as communication platforms within & across internal business units, functional groups, service structures, & knowledge centers. Through these tools the enterprise is developing more coherency within its own walls while it becomes more socialized out on the public playground.
With the rise of the social network, businesses are increasingly trying to determine if it’s worth investing in social media. But this choice has already been made for them: people are talking loudly across social networks about their brand experience, sharing solutions & disappointments, demanding customer service & satisfaction, and manipulating the narrative away from the company caretakers. Business can either choose to engage the crowd and work to manage these relationships, or they can ignore the crowd and watch their brands – and customers – get away from them.
Fortunately, to the advantage of businesses, the crowd is not dispersed but, instead, is aggregating into a handful of core attention markets. Facebook has over 600 million active users. For Q1 2011, Facebook accounts for 31% of display ads in the US, beating the combined ads of the other top ten sites. In April 2011, Facebook announced that over 2.5 million sites have integrated the Facebook “Like” button, and over 250 million people engage with Facebook on external sites every month. As of March 2011, Facebook is the 3rd largest web property in Europe, by unique visitors, and has the highest number of page views. As Facebook encloses more and more aspects of the internet – news, video, discussion, and users – it has become the primary entry point & virtual hangout for digital natives.
Similarly, Twitter is one of the top ten trafficked websites in the world with around 175 million accounts (although actual usage stats are probably somewhat lower). It has significantly displaced traditional journalism as the go-to source for breaking news and has become a sandbox for the viral spread of content & trends. Brands like Dell, Cisco, Comcast, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, and many others have migrated onto Twitter in order to quickly address customer service issues and manage fall-out from unintended problems. YouTube has seen user-generated videos skyrocket to global attention, with some garnering well over 100 million views. Even the President of the United States uses YouTube to reach the crowd. And LinkedIn is the industry standard for managing employee profiles and employer recruiting efforts, using its sophisticated analytics back-end to explore trends across business sectors and manage networking across its graph.
The lesson to business is that social media is is no longer a choice. It is a fundamental reality of the modern age. However, businesses are arguably far more empowered through social media than they realize. By stepping authentically into social networks, businesses humanize their brands and extend relationships out to customers, stakeholders, and the crowd. Metrics like Net Promoter show how likely a user would be to recommend a brand to a friend, and services like Klout attempt to measure the degree of influence a particular user has across their networks. By adopting analytic tools they can quickly get a snapshot of brand sentiment, trends, conversations & influencers, and can more easily track click-through rates, conversions, lead generation, and sales. With deeper analytics savvy market intelligence types can extract behavioral trends and reveal demographic & locative data about markets. Digital trails across desktops & mobile devices provide a way to track success from ad engagement all the way to point-of-sale and on through to customer satisfaction.
Enterprise-scale platforms like Salesforce & Jive offer entire Social CRM suites with built-in analytics and at-a-glance dashboards that enable real-time observation, response, & management across customer networks. Indeed, we are just moving into an early consolidation phase as these market leaders acquire analytics tools such as Radian6 & Proximal Labs, respectively. Enterprise stalwart IBM has released Lotus Connections, offering a Twitter-like service for internal business networks. Salesforce Chatter is a similar tool bringing together experts, stakeholders, and enterprise customers across a lightweight messaging platform. By building profiles of people & groups, connecting them, providing affordances to post, ask questions, identify, solutions, and connect with customers, the same design patterns popularized by Twitter, Facebook, & LinkedIn can help the enterprise become more efficient and overcome the all-too-common problems of internal balkanization between functional groups and the often-painful barriers to successful customer relationships.
There are clearly benefits to social CRM and there are certainly challenges. Business must work to understand the social landscape and then to articulate a core strategy for engagement. The companies most successful with social media establish direction from C-level executives, setting policy that defines the rules of social relationships but allows peripheral groups the flexibility to naturally & authentically engage with customers. The crowd is loud and not always right so attention must be paid to finding the balance between listening & reacting. Oftentimes customers just want to know that they have been heard (and there is a lot to listen to but, again, analytic tools offer ways to filter and prioritize the volume). Businesses must also consider which solutions are most appropriate for their budget & scale. Small business can have great success with free off-the-shelf web services. Larger businesses might be better off with enterprise-scale solutions that can integrate with existing ERP & BI platforms. And businesses of every size will need to cope with the tides of data and the emotions that so often attend their currents.
The accelerating pace of social media and the sea-change of smart mobile devices insures that everyone will be in an experimental mode for some time as individuals & organizations come to terms with how these tools are changing the foundations of our world. This exploratory period is marked by great movement and undercut with uncertainty, yet it is driven by the simple human need to connect & share. As the crowd gathers, becomes empowered, and is collected into data-driven platforms, businesses can grow to become more efficient and more humanized, reinforcing the social contracts that ultimately underlie all transactions. As we’ve seen again & again in current events across the world, social media appears destined to change all human systems.