Social Media’s Dirty Little Secret

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It’s time to rethink social media in marketing.

Why, you might ask? After all, you’re gaining traction. Your Facebook page has millions of likes and your team says engagement is at an all-time high. Your analytics dashboard says “viral conversations” on Twitter are generating heaps of positive sentiment about your brand. Oh, and you just had a sweet idea for spicing up your Pinterest page. What’s not to like?

That’s all good stuff, but it’s an incomplete picture of what social can achieve. Our industry continues to focus on social metrics that don’t necessarily translate into real business value. It requires that we recast social as a source for data driven relationship-building and insights for the entire business.

Not just marketing.

The dirty little secret is that social experts know that just getting likes, shares and engagement isn’t important for most businesses. I’ve had quite a few social-media experts emphatically tell me that they don’t want to be pigeon-holed as “just social.”

How can it be that social is the most powerful transformative force in modern business, yet social experts are desperate to demonstrate that they’re bigger than what their job descriptions imply?

The problem is that the marketing interpretation of social media doesn’t match the big opportunities it presents.

There’s a systemic problem with the way businesses perceive social, both on the agency and client side. People are creating departmental moats around social — claiming it for marketing, or communications, or customer service. Meanwhile, all of those pieces together (plus a lot more) equal the total experience of your brand.

For marketing, the interesting work happens when we use data from social to correlate new behavior to customers — and then create personalized experiences across every channel based on that data. That either requires people grinding away in a neo-Dickensian sweatshop, or some serious business intelligence and analytics.

Some of that disconnect is indeed caused by a lack of the right skills in our industry. That needs to be addressed with a long view into the future of the marketing profession. We’ve been trying to crack this at IBM by working with more than 1,000 universities to create more data-driven marketing professionals — our size means we need big solutions.

Social is not a professional specialty; it’s the way businesses should be run. Saying that you “own social media” is limiting. It needs to be part of your business strategy, integrated with CRM, and span both brand and employee experience to produce measurable ROI.

There’s a new book, “The Social Employee: How Great Companies Make Social Media Work,” which examines why organizations such as AT&T and Southwest Airlines are successful social businesses. These organizations activate their brands by encouraging employees to be socially fluent and engage within and outside their companies. In turn, these firms can reap the rewards: heaps of valuable data thrown off from social interactions and deeper loyalty from customers who feel understood, valued and included.

So if you think of social as a function of marketing, then you’re limiting your potential. You’re also ignoring the future that experts know is coming. There are things you and your colleagues can do to break through, but it’s not simple:
– Be an internal evangelist and forget the awards: Make sure social business is at the center of your business, from sales and marketing to product development, R&D, to supply chain.
– Be the center of intelligence: Strengthen the ties between social and enterprise transformation, whether it’s analyzing what your competitors are doing, or listening to how your most important clients or vendors are perceived.
– Be bigger than a channel: Don’t pigeonhole yourself or your team as “social media specialists” within marketing. Be a change agent for this new behavior and help apply it to every part of your business.

So maybe as we move forward, we’ll have a better way to describe this shift in highly personalized interactions with our customers. The key is evolving from being a social channel expert to a change agent. Just as automation revolutionized manufacturing, and Six Sigma provides rigor for C-suite decision-making, social media is the future of business transformation. So the lesson from this dirty little secret is that marketers who use their skills to lead social innovation will be the real social superstars.

About the Author

Howard Pyle is Vice President of Digital Strategy and head of the IBM Design Lab in NYC, where he’s responsible for the strategy and programs driving digital experience design & development, social business and content services across IBM’s global marketing & communications function. He oversees a team of designers, developers, content strategist and digital marketers to develop user interfaces development for IBM products, such as the commercial version of Watson and content services for mobile. He was previously Senior Partner and Global Director for Digital Platforms on the IBM account at Ogilvy. Prior to Ogilvy, he was Executive Director of Creative Development in TBWA’s Digital Arts Group. He co-founded the boutique agency Local Theory and developed creative products and digital strategy for Nokia, National Geographic, Fremantle Media and others.


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