Frankly none if a morning at the Social World Forum is anything to go by…

Mild frustration possibly best describes my mood leaving the conference, because I’m not sure how much more talking there needs to be about the value and role of social media in enterprise environments. The benefits, as shown by panellists (morning session track two, day one), are clear, but it is time for adopters to be more adventurous in their goal setting. Tools exist today to measure more than simply engagement and show real return-on-investment that affects the bottom line in the B2B world. My concern is if we don’t stop talking and start demonstrating a more comprehensive strategic approach it will never go mainstream in the enterprise. The good news is that Salesforce’s acquisition of Radian6 should help to focus minds and avoid any further discussion that social media isn’t mainstream in the enterprise.

First let me come back to the analogy. Listening to the conversation yesterday it did start me thinking about the parallels between social media and that much mythologised first sexual encounter, which adolescents, particularly boys, spend so much of their time debating…allegedly.  (Disclosure, yes I did attend a Catholic boys school and there were priests, but no they didn’t) Anyway, i do realise I’m making sweeping generalisations, but I think the point is valid…according to the cliché of every relevant Hollywood movie there is much anticipation – and anxiety – about that ‘first time’, much reading of relevant ‘literature’ and consultation with peers. Only in the end to be a fumble in the dark, with no one really knowing what they’re doing, over too quickly or not quickly enough and everyone at the very least feeling uncertain about how they feel about the experience, if not decidedly underwhelmed and in the worst case vowing never to do it again.

Email Comparison

Something that triggered my concern was the comparison with email. Discussion suggested social media will be the next most important disruptive communications technology. Undoubtedly email has changed the way business works, but it took years to establish etiquette and process and today I don’t know many people who talk about how productive they are thanks to email. The issue is that email was allowed to sprawl, its role in the workplace and business poorly defined and I can see danger signs for social media.

Technology tolerance disorder (or excuse)

Admittedly social media is such a young industry ably demonstrated by the proliferation of companies at the show claiming to offer distinct solutions yet sounding remarkably similar. The pace of technology change is rapid, which makes it difficult to plan a long-term strategy, but that should not be used to tolerate or excuse ill-defined or superficial social media strategies (it is a disorder that technologists seem to struggle with whatever the innovation). There are companies like Lithium Technologies and Telligent providing grown up solutions, which make social media much more measureable in terms of its contribution to a business.

What does social media allow us to do differently that we couldn’t do before?

This shouldn’t difficult to answer, but we do seem to be making it excessively even though it’s the only question that matters. Particularly if you’re trying to encourage B2B audiences to buy social media it should be the job of social media professionals and enthusiasts to make it easy for clients to understand the answer. Yesterday didn’t inspire me that we get that point.

The panellists in the first session did begin to highlight what can be done. Jonathan Brayshaw, from Psion (@Jon_at_Psion) talked about using social media to engage differently with customers, partners and employees through a community environment, which has seen a 5% reduction in workload for customer support, as well as contributing to future product development.

Kelly Thomas, from Prudential PruProtect talked about engaging financial advisors and encouraging them to use social media to speak to customers. In a specific campaign around the World Cup (http://bit.ly/eKvOkp) PruProtect saw a 30% increase from sales.

In a later session Zoe Sands, Juniper Networks (@ZoeSands), talked about a four year programme that has been building a community called J-Net which saw a 300% increase in overall traffic following the launch of its mobile version last year. This community is self-governing, with customers and partners helping each other to solve technology issues and providing feedback to the product development team.

Demonstrate ROI, but consider the ‘unexpected’ magic sauce for B2B audiences

Zoe cited the Forrester research from 2010 which suggests that 88% of decision makers now use social media in their decision making processes. If that isn’t motivation enough for companies to embrace social media more effectively then the examples above should begin to show how ROI can be achieved in quite tangible and simple ways.

That said what I failed to ask the panellists is how many decision makers participate in their online communities rather than simply talking to the usual suspects. For example, J-Net has 23,000 users, but the age old challenge in the enterprise IT sector is accessing the ‘C’ level audiences. J-Net may do this, but Jonathan’s throw-away remark towards the end of the session, really began to get to the magic sauce that social media can add.

He talked about it enabling Psion to be ‘unexpectedly competitive.’ For me the key word is ‘unexpectedly.’ Social media has blown apart traditional hierarchies making it more difficult for vendors to engage with clients, but at the same time it means previously inaccessible customers – or members of their network – are now reachable.

If customers are stepping forward to help solve the problems of other customers, if customers are helping companies to hone their product development roadmaps and if social media gives you access to a CIO you have never talked to before in a more informal way, so that you can establish a rapport that is unexpected. Good unexpected.

Unexpectedly rewarding conversations

One member of the audience talked a bit today about social media being the wrong terminology that really it is about people and how we interact that’s important. That gets close to the important point, but not quite. If a business is having conversations with individuals within its client base they have never spoken to before about subjects that they never thought possible to discuss, that is both rewarding and unexpected.

That is what social media in the enterprise sector should really be about.

Fundamentally social media should enable businesses to break down barriers, redefine perceptions about their brand and products, reach new people and engender community spirit that turns individuals into advocates. Ultimately leading to increased sales, greater customer loyalty and more efficient business processes.

It is not an excuse to say the tools do not exist, because there are providers moving in the right direction.

As PR professionals it is our role to identify the ‘who’ that are having those conversations, so that our clients can engage with and influence those conversations in a way that benefits their business. And without sounding too arrogant we are the right people to do this, because our job has always been to identify the influencers and strike up the right conversations with them.

Yes as with every technology cycle there is a maturing process, but this can’t be the same maturing process reserved for whisky. It needs to happen sooner rather than later, because the theory is pretty solid as demonstrated by Ray Wang.

So stop talking at the back of the class how to do it and get on with it! Otherwise I worry that social media in the B2B will end up being known as that fumble in the dark we’re all slightly embarrassed about.

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