Whatever Became of the Social Business?

Remember when social media envangelists were telling us that the best — the only — way to squeeze the best results from the social explosion was to become a social business through and through? Whatever happened to that?

Historically, of course, a “social enterprise” was one — typically a nonprofit — which used a market model to address social issues. But as social media developed into a key business channel over the last decade, the social enterprise blurred into the social business. Take, for example, Salesforce in 2011:

Social enterprises revolutionize their level of customer and employee engagement through the use of social, mobile and open cloud technologies. Salesforce is Social – Chatter Now, Chatter Customer Groups, Chatter Approvals, Chatter Service and Data.com will accelerate social app adoption across the entire enterprise 

For profit enterprises, in other words, could drive business goals by using social to leverage both customer and employee engagement. The latter is really at the heart for the concept of a social business.

Here’s Haydn Shaughnessy at Forbes, also from 2011:

Social business has a broad thrust… It is much more than social media and doesn’t necessarily need to start with social media

A social business, in other words, wasn’t just a business getting to grips with the marketing and advertising potential of a suddenly burgeoning array of social platforms: Not just Facebook and Twitter, but Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, and Google+ had all launched by the end of that year. It also, said Shaughnessy, involved the following factors:

  • Internal social engagement
  • The customer eco-system
  • Social listening 
  • Social advocacy by employees (“brand articulation”)
  • Employee transformation and empowerment

Coming back to the present, let’s assume (because I think it’s true) that the overwhelming majority of successful businesses — as well as many nonprofits and public institutions — are working to engage with customers (including, but not only, selling them stuff) on social channels. That’s the element of social business the Shaughnessy article takes for granted. How are businesses doing on the other stuff?

Internal social engagement, to many, means an intranet: a concept now familiar enough that the downsides as well as the benefits are well known. Anyone else experienced a company intranet where content is all but impossible to find? Not because the search engine doesn’t work, but because no investment was made in uniform metadata strategies like article tagging. Or how about those intranets which serve as blogging tools for the few members of staff who don’t seem to have enough other stuff to do?

Running an authentic, full-fledged internal social network requires time, expertise, and editing skills (or it will be as full of clutter as a disused garage). And unless there’s a way to measure it, ROI is an act of faith.

That’s not to say there aren’t vendors who provide intranet on demand. In fact, the future of internal social engagement, if it has one, probably lies with informal, forum-based tools like Slack (yes, we use it here).

The customer-eco-system, social listening, social customer support and service: They’re with us, and they’re here to stay. For many brands, the most robust commercial use of Twitter is as part of their customer care eco-system. It’s not just the go-to social platform for customer complaints: It can also be a fast and flexible channel to respond — to kudos as well as grievances. It’s a forum which does require nurturing — customers increasingly demand a fast response — but it’s also one where ROI is at least detectable. Studies claim links between good social customer service and increased revenue.

Finally, what about employee engagement? Are workers encouraged to advocate for their brands? Are they empowered to do so? Everyone, I guess, can answer that question from their own experience. There are brands which incentivize social engagement by employees; there are brands which control it (“h/she is socially certified”); and doubtless there are brands which tolerate a free-for-all.

But this hasn’t yet altered the internal structure of the typical business. It doesn’t guarantee abandoning hierarchical management models for more social — one might think, flatter — models. Nor does it guarantee that employees form a passionately engaged community, as many of them do on “real” social platforms outside working hours (or outside the confines of work, anyway).

In other words, it’s possible for a brand to display all the attributes of a social business without truly undergoing internal social transformation. Yes, it can walk and talk like a duck without really being a duck. We’ll know in the longer term whether that’s any barrier to enduring social-based business success. 

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