There is a lot of chatter in social media and online community circles about how social initiatives lead to increased transparency – and some of that is definitely true. Customers and the public can find out a lot more about what others think about a company’s products and service than ever before. However, I don’t think it will miraculously make companies share their planing and decision-making processes with the world because those processes are quite messy and not always fair or well-articulated. In fact, it’s not ideal to share much of that information out of context because it only serves to confuse so it’s entirely appropriate that not everything is shared in real-time.
There is, however, one thing that online initiatives expose reliably once they gain momentum: business and operational inconsistencies. I’ve spoken with a number of companies who have a hard time identifying where they should start with social media or what their goals should be. To me, this is often an indication that corporate or departmental strategies and goals are not well clarified and articulated because they should be the drivers of any social media or community initiative. Unclear strategies and goals are not social media problems. But business issues will be exacerbated by and exposed using social media. That can be a good thing – it can force the organization to grapple with the bigger strategic or operational issues – but if it’s not recognized for what it is, social media initiatives can give businesses some surprises they were not expecting in the form of confusion over who ‘owns’ the relationships, who has the ‘right’ to say certain things, and internal rivalries between functional groups – not to mention confused customers or employees.
Social media execution is often in a bit of a bubble – either handled by a small number of individuals internally or outsourced to a marketing agency. The market is starting to see how this is an insufficient model because of the business and operational issues it brings up but far too often, social initiatives are not given allocated senior business oversight. Without a senior champion – who has the time and resources to actually solve strategic and operational issues – social media will increasingly become a venue for frustration for many people within the organization and burn-out on the part of social media practitioners who spend their time seeing issues but who have no avenue to solve the underlying business problems they expose.
My bet is that 2010 will bring a lot more executive attention to social media and online community. The companies that will excel at social initiatives will be those that recognize how linked it is to their core strategies – and be willing to spend the time, money, and resources to ensure ‘social’ is not an isolated activity but a core strategic competency. It’s not an easy or cheap task and because of that, it will start to separate the market between those who see social as a driver for differentiation and competitiveness and those that dabble because they think they ‘should’. A side effect of this will be that those practitioners who now have some experience will change organizations and roles as demand for their experience increases and they better understand which companies are serious and which are dabbling. If you are a practitioner, it’s a good time to assess how realistic and serious your organization is, whether there is progress to be made or whether you are being asked to be a band-aid for business ills that are far beyond the scope of ‘social’ without the means to address them. It’s also a good time to read some basic business strategy books by Michael Porter or Clayton Christensen or newer additions like Linked and Information Rules. As with most operational disciplines, success is much more predicated on a realistic assessment of your organization, its limitations and its opportunities than on idealistic plans. January is a good time to ask:
- What do you want to get out of this year?
- What does your organization want you do to this year?
- What is realistic to expect for this year?
- If the above answers don’t line up, what’s possible and acceptable to change so that they do?