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On Developing a Social Business Strategy

Social business isn’t apps and tweets and status updates. That’s social media. Social business is a shared passion for collaboration and caring that happens to leverage social media as a tool. Understanding how the tools work is the easy part. The challenge is overcoming the divide that separates traditional business mindsets from the blood, sweat, and tears of transforming into a social business.

Navigating this divide will be more difficult or less difficult, depending on your company culture. Because social business starts within the organization, you must be willing to understand and articulate its risks and benefits to executives to obtain stakeholder support. And the best way to get that support is through a carefully developed strategic plan. Here are three high-level considerations for building the foundation of your social business strategy.

#1 Align Your Business Goals with Creating Value for Your Customers

When social media entered the mainstream lexicon several years ago, many traditional marketers built strategies to capitalize on it. Unfortunately, these strategies often involved traditional ways of thinking about the use of new media to build awareness around a given company’s products and services, and as such, the din of the hall became “social media is a new tool that lets us blast our message to thousands of people for free!” And although having goals tied explicitly to revenue generation, cost savings, or customer retention are often critical for sustaining long-term support of your social media programs, it’s important to note that none of these goals will likely be realized unless you are successful at creating actual value in your community and eliminating pain points for customers.

When certain individuals think about potential business-use cases for social media in their companies, they have such a comprehensive understanding of the needs of their business, their customers’ pain points, and the many ways to leverage social media that they can start correlating business objectives with customer needs right away. Does your business need to increase customer satisfaction? Check. Then focus your social media efforts on improving service quality (just an example). Does product development want new ideas and new sources of product feedback? Check. Then focus your social media efforts on crowd-sourced ideas and reward the most popular submissions. Do you need to reduce support costs and leverage knowledge from actual users? Check. Then co-create a support community and knowledge base with your customers.

For the rest of us, choosing the right objectives—those that are meaningful to both the business and customers—takes a little more due diligence.

Social media means different things to different people. It’s a broad term, and it’s also a broad category in terms of how certain aspects of it can be applied—it’s certainly not a templated process that can be copiously applied to every situation because value drivers vary from one company to the next. When we’re thinking about building a social media strategy, we have to start with the end in mind and ask ourselves what we want to accomplish for the business and how that relates to creating value or eliminating pain points for customers. The reverse approach works as well—look at how you can use social media to help customers, and then track potential successful outcomes back to specific business goals. For example, if you know that an upcoming product release will likely disrupt the day-to-day operations of a segment of your customer base, you might consider proactive social media outreach in advance, during and after the release, ensuring that the impact to customers is minimized. This could, of course, translate to the business goal of supporting higher levels of customer satisfaction during the transition.

We can’t do everything that’s possible with social. (And we shouldn’t want to do everything.) Start focused, and simply ask, “What is the most important thing we can accomplish for our customers by leveraging social media?” I will wager that the answer to that question will equate to an important business goal as well.

After identifying where you can deliver value to customers using social media, it’s important to also understand your customers’ aptitude for adopting and using these tools. One example of a failure to do so is from a few years back, when a company called “Hoveround,” which produces motorized scooters primarily for senior citizens with mobility issues, apparently launched a new Facebook page (see Figure 1.4) where customers—presumably seniors—were encouraged to “join need fanssssssssss!!!” This was at a time before a lot of senior citizens were even familiar with Facebook and, therefore, the strategy (and tactics) to engage them in this channel was clearly short-sighted and out of touch with their target demographic.

Adding to gaining a clear understanding of where your customers hang out online (Are they on Twitter? Do they blog? Are they members of other branded communities?), it’s also important to understand what they do and how they “act” in those channels. You can think about understanding this social media aptitude as a continuum from basic actions to advanced actions, and ensure that your application of social media tools and desired behaviors and desired behaviors accommodates their relative social “maturity” level and propensity to interact with your media landscape in a meaningful way.

Figure 1.4

Figure 1.4 Out of touch and ineffective

Where do your customers and staff fall on the following social media activity continuum (from basic to advanced)?

  • Content consumption: Watches online video and reads blogs and forums
  • Social networking presence: Maintains a profile and presence in social media
  • Likes, retweets, and kudos: Provides simple online acknowledgments
  • Ratings and reviews: Posts experience-based feedback
  • Comments and replies: Replies to blogs and forums
  • Content creation: Creates original blog posts, wiki edits, and forum topic creation
  • Media creation: Original video and podcast production

#2 Tear Down These Walls! Approach Social Business Cross-Functionally

Sooner or later, social business will break down organizational silos—whether you like it or not. Customers don’t care whether marketing or support “owns” your online community. They don’t care who runs your Facebook page or who manages your corporate Twitter account. If you have a marketing presence on social media and customers have a support question, they will find you, and they will ask their question to your marketing folks. This is your moment of truth: The customer might already be agitated. He might have significant online influence. He is asking you for help in a public way. Your marketing group is responsible for the platform. How will you respond?

For social media, “customer support is marketing, and marketing is customer support.” That is, how you (or your advocates) respond to legitimate questions in these widely visible channels has the potential to connect with not only the question asker in meaningful ways, but also a vast silent audience as well. This audience will acknowledge your credibility and responsiveness—the simple fact that you care for and respond to your customers—which is much more powerful marketing than your latest press release.

And as far as “marketing is customer support” goes, organizations should be tightly aligned around the common goal of creating value for customers, not simply promoting their wares. At a minimum, successful social businesses have customer success, marketing, and support organizations working collaboratively on developing social media strategies to enable product and feature adoption, spearhead proactive outreach for addressing known support issues, and build awareness for valuable company resources. Sure, social media marketing can still be effective with the development and promotion of online contests and the like, but driving real value—with the input and collaboration from other functional groups—is the new imperative.

Many companies have resisted the notion of integrating the social media strategies and tactics from different functional groups. For example, several well-known brands have numerous distinct communities—one for support, another for product feedback and ideation, and yet another completely separate community for users to share tips and customizations. Although at the other end of the spectrum, marketing has spearheaded the companies’ involvement in social, launching, say, a company Facebook page, with no plan or intention to respond to customer inquiries that fall outside of marketing’s domain. This is a recipe for disaster. Even for the companies with numerous disparate communities, some have had the foresight to create engagement plans that describe response paths for different scenarios, for example, how to respond to support questions posted to the ideation community or how to deal with product feedback posted to the support community. But it begs the question, “Why the separation in the first place?”

That said, most situations are unique, and there might very well be a rationale for this separation. But in all cases, I would highly encourage the company to develop a cross-functional “Center of Excellence” to collaboratively arrive at the decision to integrate or separate, as well as define policy, outline triage plans for response escalations and potential fire storms, and develop a program that encourages participation and advocacy. (Check out Chapter 2, “The Reinvention of Social-by-Design Business,” by Adobe’s Cory Edwards for an in-depth view of the value of Centers of Excellence.)

The conversation today is all about inspiring meaningful engagement across the customer life cycle. If you agree that customer loyalty is the key to success in your business, you will probably also agree that a singular focus on one stage of the customer life cycle—say, presales—while neglecting others—say, post-sales—is not a formula for success. Both marketing and customer care play critical roles in social business. However, a true social business is a culture of customer care—not simply emanating from customer support—but one in which every employee is encouraged and inspired to delight customers with every interaction.

#3 Keep It Simple: An Optimized User Experience Is Key to Adoption

When it comes to the adoption of social media, optimizing the user experience is critical. The key to an optimized user experience is simplicity: ease of access, just the right feature set, and integration with existing technologies and work streams.

Today, we are beginning to see categorical evidence of the move to optimize the social user experience by integrating social into existing environments. For example, the following statistic might surprise you: The growth of standalone enterprise social software has fallen by approximately 50 percent over the past 2 years.24

Contrary to first impressions, the trend is not explained by businesses using enterprise collaboration software less, but because these collaboration tools are being embedded into existing applications and work streams (think Salesforce.com’s Chatter), which is reducing the prevalence of the standalone tools. Peter Coffee, a VP in Salesforce.com’s strategic research group, puts it this way, “It is like having a telephone room at the end of the hallway where you make your calls. (It doesn’t happen that way.) The phone is infused into the way we get work done.”

Another important development that further describes the shift to optimizing user experience was by Microsoft’s purchase for $1.2 billion in 201225 of Yammer, an enterprise collaboration tool that works like Twitter. One month after Microsoft made the purchase, it announced that further development of Yammer was moving under the Office 365 team (responsible for the popular suite of Microsoft Office applications). To me, this speaks volumes to the notion that Microsoft is focused on integrating social capabilities to tools that many of us use on a daily basis—optimizing the user experience—and making access, adoption, and ultimately collaboration, that much easier.

Consider the integration of branded communities with website login, with knowledge base content, and with federated search. We want to make sure that customers know where to go and what to do for whatever the task at hand might be. The way most communities are set up—with separate logins, separate platforms, and scattered content—is confusing and inefficient for staff and customers alike.

Integrating technologies to enhance the user experience can sometimes be expensive or resource-intensive, but if thoughtfully planned and executed, a return on your investment is certainly possible. ROI from user-experience initiatives can take several shapes—from customer retention to call deflection through more engaged support communities. Microsoft measures “customer effort” as a precursor metric to community ROI: Their user experience-focused initiatives help users move easily among channels and find what they are looking for with less effort, which they equate to customer satisfaction and can subsequently measure as ROI.

Another forward-looking technology company starts its online support process not by abandoning users in a confusing tangle of community threads, but with a simple, prominent search box with results that auto-populate from both the knowledge base and community forums as the user types. If no relevant results are identified, the user has the one-click option of turning the search query into a new forum topic. If the question posed to the community is not responded to within 24 hours, it is automatically bumped to a distinct “needs assistance” area designated for the community’s top advocates. In the instance that the question is not marked as “resolved” by the question originator after 48 hours, the forum post escalates into a support incident automatically.

This successful approach at optimizing the user experience integrates website login with community, community and knowledge base with search, top advocates with escalated topics, and support reps with twice-escalated topics. No system is perfect of course: Sometimes the forum questions are actually resolved in the community, but the originator simply neglects to mark it as resolved. However, the support reps see the subsequent follow-up as an opportunity to demonstrate their responsiveness, inquire about any other issues they can help with, and enhance the relationship through proactive outreach. But it doesn’t end there. The community’s “top advocates” are responsible for vetting the most helpful answers and best content, and when content ratings surpass a certain approval threshold, the content is automatically harvested and added to the knowledge base. This is a shining example of an optimized user experience.

Another fantastic story of optimizing the user experience is from the innovators at Enterasys Networks, who are credited as the first company to be successful with building “social machines.”26Vala Afshar, who was then chief customer officer at Enterasys and always a consummate champion—and practitioner—of social business, invented a product called Intelligent Socially Aware & Automated Collaboration (ISAAC). Realizing the significant amount of time that his customers spent using social media, as well as the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, he saw an opportunity to reduce the number of interfaces his customers needed to access by deploying a solution that enabled them to manage and control Enterasys’ network products dynamically through social media such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Chatter by Salesforce.com.

ISAAC is essentially a social media interface that translates the complex language of systems to English, German, Japanese, and other languages, and not only posts updates in customers’ preferred social media channels, but also enables them to communicate back to the machines—giving users both visibility and control of mission-critical systems, all within the applications they already use on a daily basis. There are few better examples of optimizing the user experience through platform innovations.

The ISAAC example is of course more Cadillac than Chevy, and most of us will be starting out trying to build the latter. With that in mind, it’s important to do a type of user-experience mapping, where your team runs through specific customer use cases and tasks that are likely most common among your user base, for example, put yourself in your customers’ shoes when they are searching for product reviews or help with certain features. Better yet, invite different types of customers (representative of various product lines, seniority, or level of familiarity with your platforms) to run through certain tasks, which will quickly expose pain points with content access, navigation, messaging, purpose differentiation for various applications, accessibility from mobile devices, and more.

Generally speaking, it’s best to approach new community and social media initiatives as small and focused as possible, ensuring that every platform and every customization supports the goals of your business and eliminates pain points for customers, no more and no less. The excitement that often pervades sparkly new tools has given rise to many companies inundating their customers with too many places to go, too many things to do, and too few integrations, which only obscures clear paths to desired behavior.

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