I find it ironic that many executives struggle to see the business value of social networking, because as a group, executives tend to be some of the most highly networked individuals. Perhaps they feel that the Internet is too impersonal a meeting place compared to board rooms, fine restaurants and golf courses. Personally, I believe the underlying issue is one of missing the forest for the trees. On the surface, social networks like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn just look like so much fluff. How could any real business value be found in all that meaningless jibberish?
Making sense of social media is not easy. Even the name is misleading, because the word “media” clouds our thinking with advertising concepts. At the heart of social media are the social networks, communication channels that are fundamentally different from traditional media, like television, radio, magazines, billboards and even most websites. Traditional media is a one-way communication channel: a monologue. Social media is a two-way communication channel: a dialogue.
When you make a Friend on Facebook or follow someone on Twitter, you establish a new relationship that expands your social network and enables communication across that relationship, indeed across the entire network of intertwined relationships: the social conversation. The last article in this series peered just beneath the surface of the social conversation to explore how social media can automate social business processes across the company firewall, and offers the opportunity for dramatic increases in productivity through business process reengineering. This new installment looks beneath this process-centric view of social media to uncover the foundation of relationships that create the two-way communication channel and enable the social conversation: the social business network.
Social Business Network | A Relationship View of Social Business
Imagine for a minute that everyone you know is on Facebook (this is what Facebook imagines). Now imagine a concentric map of all the underlying social network relationships with your company’s employees at the center and your company’s customers, vendors and investors on the next circle out, then your company’s prospects, partners, competitors, as well as your industry’s influencers, press, associations and so forth to create the complete social network of your industry’s ecosystem. That is your company’s social business network.
A company’s social business network comprises all the underlying social network relationships, beginning with a company’s employees at the center and extending out to include a company’s customers, vendors and investors on the next circle out, then a company’s prospects, partners, competitors, as well as your industry’s influencers, press, associations and so forth to create the complete social network the industry’s ecosystem.
Unfortunately, social networks like Facebook were not originally designed as two-way communication channels for business; they were designed as two-way communication channels for people. It is not surprising that Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have encountered significant challenges as they attempt to monetize through advertising; advertising is foreign and intrusive to the underlying social network relationships. In fact, conspicuous advertising is more intrusive to a social conversation than it is to say a TV show, because a conversation is personal. People don’t like to be interrupted by an ad when talking to their friends.
The Social Business Network is for Business Networking
Advertising on social networks can be profitable, but it is the weakest business use of the social media channel. Advertising treats the rich two-way social media communication channel like a simple one-way broadcast communication channel; it reduces the social conversation from dialogue to monologue. Social networks exists for networking, not advertising. Such is the irony that many CXOs, as the most highly networked of individuals, think of social media as just another place to advertise.
To unleash the potential business value of social media, you must actively build your company’s social business network and fuel interesting social conversations. However, each social network relationship has context, and the context of that relationship must be honored or the interaction becomes intrusive. While this is plain to see in the case of advertising, the same principle holds true for any business use of social media. Therefore, the relationships that comprise your company’s social business network are best established in the context of your business. Your employees can’t just come crashing in on a customer’s conversation about family and friends. They must reach out on social media in the natural course of their jobs, the same way they use email and the telephone. For example, they can share stories about how your customers benefit from your products, or better yet encourage customers to share them directly. They can engage in dialogue that is relevant to your industry. They can handle support requests. They can even sell, provided the dialogue is based on a valued business relationship.
The B2C Social Media Challenge
p>I think creating a powerful social business network is easier for business-to-business companies than for business-to-consumer companies. Business relationships are the foundation of B2B companies. Unlike a B2C brand, a B2B company’s social business network naturally includes its customers. By definition, the relationships between B2B companies and B2B customers are business relationships, whereas the relationships between B2C companies and consumers are brand relationships. B2B company-customer relationships go far beyond brand loyalty to include serious business goals and professional career success. A B2B company has only one social business network, company and customer, online and offline. The company-consumer relationship is far more tenuous.
While consumers often have ferocious loyalty for their favorite brands, they rarely have personal relationships with the companies that create those brands. Moreover, the ratio of customers to employees in B2C are a hundred times that of B2B, making it much more difficult to maintain personal company-consumer relationships. Creating and scaling a true B2C social business network of company-consumer relationships is the fundamental B2C social media challenge.
Without the foundation of a strong social business network, B2C companies cannot engage in meaningful social dialogue or manage the social conversation around their brands. However, relationships that comprise a company’s social business network are best established in a business context. Your employees can’t just come crashing in on a customer’s conversation about family and friends. Creating and scaling a true B2C social business network of company-consumer relationships is the fundamental B2C social media challenge.
Without the foundation of a strong social business network, B2C companies cannot engage in meaningful social dialogue or manage the social conversation around their brands. They are reduced to a monologue of content publishing and advertising. B2C success in social media weighs entirely on the creativity of content. There is constant pressure to create the next great viral video or ad campaign. While great content is an essential aspect of any good social media program, it is merely a means to an end; the ultimate business potential of social media comes with a community of loyal customers engaged in an ongoing, meaningful social conversation around your brand. Content can seed that conversation in the personal social networks of consumers, but a company cannot actively participate in the conversation if consumers are not directly connected to the company’s social business network.