Buyers of online social products and services face a difficult problem – what is it, exactly, they are purchasing? Social initiative sponsors and corporate purchasing agents alike must evaluate market offerings against a backdrop of hyper-speed product and service evolution, hyper-active marketing efforts and, well, just plain hype. It’s a daunting, confusing and uncertain process. With so much variety and rapid evolution, even industry insiders find it tough to make apples-to-apples comparisons, let alone identify the best apple or apple seller to meet a specific business need.
The language used to describe online social concepts, products and services is one aspect of the problem. Descriptions are slippery and ill-defined. There are no set standards for how online social practitioners describe what they do or what the product does. Terms like social business and social media are used interchangeably, leading to a kind of commercial schizophrenia.
So … let’s begin by defining a few concepts to help manage the craziness.
Social business is a set of online activities which link stakeholders (prospects, customers, employees, suppliers, partners, professional colleagues, investors) to a sponsoring organization in a business relationship. The activities might include: product and service support, collaboration, problem-solving, best practice development, idea-sharing, innovation, thought-leadership and research. A business relationship is at the center of these interactions – both the stakeholders and the sponsor organization receive value and benefits from the interactions. Some application or platform examples include online communities (both internal and externally facing), social CRM systems and collaboration tools. Given the degree of interaction between the organization and the stakeholders, online social business initiatives are usually operate in a B2B environment.
Social media refers to online social activities which communicate messages between organizations and individuals, and between groups of individuals. In the world of business, “social media” is predominantly a marketing activity — social media marketing. Online social tools and techniques are used to create or extend a marketing program to build awareness, engagement and, ultimately induce purchase. Most – but not all – online social media marketing activities involve an organization engaging with individual consumers or groups of consumers, and thus are B2C.
One way to think about the differences between these two styles of online social activity is “inward-facing” and “outward-facing.” Effective online social business initiatives tend to be inward-facing, focused on internal business processes such as better customer service and support, improved operational efficiency, increased collaboration, faster innovation and knowledge creation. Success can be measured by changes within the organization. Conversely, online social media initiatives surface outward to influence audiences outside the firm. A social media initiative distributes the sponsoring organization’s messages via social channels to individuals and audiences to generate awareness and build engagement. Success can be defined by changes in consumer sentiment, awareness and brand engagement.
Based on these two definitions, it’s clear an online social business strategy would differ significantly from an online social media strategy. Understanding which kind of activity your organization wants to pursue will determine the strategic approach, and guide the selection of platforms, products or service providers.
Online Social Platforms
Back in the day, an online community platform was considered a fairly complex and specialized software application – operated in-house or by a service provider – which would serve both business and consumer audiences. However, the enormous global growth of online social activities has transformed the platform universe.
The big three — Facebook, LinkedIN and Twitter – are public collaboration platforms, operated for the benefit of the platforms themselves. Organizations using them for social media and some types of social business initiatives are “renting” space and access to their global membership. Just as with a billboard or a print ad, you get to display a marketing message but you don’t have access to the individual viewer’s information unless the viewer affirmatively shares it with you.
While the big three dominate the online social media marketing arena (and, yes, there are additional players such as Google+) there are also a variety of white-label and custom collaboration platforms available for sustained use in social business initiatives. These include Get Satisfaction, Jive, Zimbra, Lithium, Socious and tibbr. These private label communities support online collaboration with specific – even highly specialized — audiences to gather insights which can then be used to improve business operations. The results might include tapping into trends, specific product feedback or generating new product ideas, among a wide range of other business processes.