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What is Social Business? A Clear Definition

By on Apr 3, 2012 5 Comments

“Social business” is a white-hot buzzword right now. However, there is little consensus as to what it actually means. In a #socbizchat Twitter chat hosted by online magazine CMSWire last fall, top consultants, executives, and marketers spent over an hour debating the question, “What is Social Business?” without gaining an inch of common understanding.

It seems that most people know it when they see it, but can’t tell you what it is in layman’s terms. While I appreciate the definitions that are out there, many are not packaged for the masses of businesses and non-profit organizations trying to harness the power of social networks. Take, for instance, the following definition by Cheryl Burgess:

“Social businesses implement social technologies, strategies and processes that span across their entire enterprise, creating and optimizing collaborative ecosystems of employees, customers, partners, suppliers, communities and stakeholders in a safe and consistent way.”

While I agree with Cheryl’s definition and most of the points in her post, the definition lacks the clarity and succinctness to be sticky in the minds of everyday businesspeople. The potential of social business and online communities is so exciting and far-reaching that I often suffer from the same verbal excesses when describing how social business impacts organizations.

In an effort to make the concept of social business more digestible, the team at Socious has developed a clear definition of social business.

What is Social Business?

Concise? Yes. Simple? No. This definition is as expansive as the business problems that online communities solve. For further clarity, let’s break this definition into its parts.

Organization

Social business is the ability for an ORGANIZATION to use its communities to improve its performance.

An organization could be a Fortune 500 corporation, private company, or a nonprofit, such as an association or user group. Obviously, organizations are made up of people. Since people are coming at social business from all angles and organizational situations, the definition could easily be brought down to an individual or departmental level. In that case, social business would be the ability for you or your group to use your organization’s communities to do your job better. However, in most contexts, social business refers to improving the results for the business or organization as a whole.

Communities

Social business is the ability for an organization to use its COMMUNITIES to improve its performance.

While online communities are the most common type of community, organizations have always had communities – communities of employees, communities, of customer, communities of suppliers, etc. Until the last decade, these communities where offline and had limited opportunities for collaboration and collective support. These days, it is rare for a community to not have an online component. Even if your community is based around a conference or live event, a significant amount of engagement occurs online before, during, and after the event.

In this definition, communities refers to the many communities that exist in and around an organization. These can include:

  • Customers or members
  • Prospects
  • Employees
  • Channel partners
  • Suppliers
  • Volunteers
  • Product partners and consultants
  • Analysts and media
  • Donors
  • Conference attendees
  • User groups
  • Chapters
  • Grassroots supporters

In addition, an organization’s communities can exist in many forms online – from engaging your market and its media in an active Twitter community to a private online community where customers can find the information and people they need to be successful with your products or services.

Performance

Social business is the ability for an organization to use its communities to IMPROVE ITS PERFORMANCE.

In the same way that this definition is purposefully broad enough to apply to many types of organizations, it also address the wide array of goals that an organization can have at any given time. Here are a few examples of performance indicators:

  • Improving brand perception
  • Finding new customers
  • Passing favorable legislation
  • Closing more sales faster
  • Improving customer satisfaction while reducing support costs
  • Increasing customer retention and repeat business

Communities Often Overlap to Improve Performance

The measurable impact that social business has on an organization is not contained in silos. Communities are often most impactful when brought together with other communities. For an example, collaboration among your customer service teams, customers, and partners could help to control support costs. In another example, members of an association and the membership services staff can work together to increase the value of joining the organization to prospective members by providing exclusive content and expertise in the online community.

Does This Definition Apply to You?

While we have used this definition across markets and organizations of all types, it will evolve as technology changes and new ideas enter the landscape. Please leave your feedback and business experience in the comments below to critique, challenge, and expand upon this definition.

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5 Responses to What is Social Business? A Clear Definition

  1. Bob Thompson April 3, 2012 at 6:22 pm #

    Joshua, I agree the definition by Cheryl Burgess is overly complicated.

    I think you and Cheryl are both describing Social Business Strategy, which involves the use of Social Business tools. But the tools and the strategy are two different things.

    Let’s say someone implements an online community but doesn’t have a good plan to get business benefits. I’d say they have implemented a Social Business application, but don’t have a Social Business Strategy.

    Your definition is incomplete in that there are lots of applications beyond online communities. Unless by community you mean social networks, wikis, social media monitoring, etc. etc.

    I realize you’re using “community” in a very broad sense, but this will be confusing to the market and most people. For example, you don’t have a community (in my book, at least) by analyzing tweets. That’s social analytics, just one of a dozen+ social applications that can used internally and/or externally.

    The CRM industry has a troubled past by conflating strategy with tools. I’m hoping the Social Business industry doesn’t do the same thing.

  2. Roger Whitehead April 3, 2012 at 10:16 pm #

    Hello Joshua,

    Your definition is easy to understand but, to my mind, vague.

    Four aspects need making clear.

    1. “Social business” implies action. Your definition is only about potential. It needs rewording, to something like "Social business is an organization's use of its communities to improve its performance.”

    2. Organizations have been doing this since the beginnings of human society. What's special these days is the use of computer networks to make it possible or easier. So, the second revision should read something like: "Social business is an organization's use of its online communities to improve its performance.”

    3. Even that isn’t adequate, as it suggests that internal communities are all that count. Removing “its” does the necessary — "Social business is an organization's use of online communities to improve its performance.”

    4. Finally, it's not just about performance, however defined, but also about such characteristics as resilience, responsiveness and cohesiveness. Thus the final revision: "Social business is an organization's use of online communities to improve its capabilities and performance.”

    That’s one word fewer than the original, BTW.

    Regards,

    Roger

  3. Jeffrey Summers April 10, 2012 at 11:56 am #

    Any definition that doesn’t take offline communities into consideration is foolish.

  4. Stuart Spencer April 16, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

    Joshua,

    I like you summary – and completely agree that it HAS to be linked to business performance – otherwise whereis The business case? I also agree it should be online communities in this context, as this is a great part of the business case. Once a conversation is captured online it is then reference-able and search-able ongoing – and for knowledge industries this is a key driver for the social business investment. Capturing expert knowledge by using a give-to-get forum to engage your employees. Thanks for the blog.

  5. Roger Whitehead April 19, 2012 at 4:29 am #

    Jeffrey Summers’ point is valid, if inelegantly made. Here’s a revised definition:

    “Social business is an organization's use of online with offline communities to improve its capabilities and performance.”

    The big question is whether the organization is capable of setting up and running an online system that achieves this dual aim. To do so would require it to:
    • be aware of the existence and worth of the offline communities
    • be aware of the potential worth of online communities, and
    • to encourage the constructive co-existence of the offline and online worlds.

    Any compulsion or thoughts of "driving” anything to do with these communities would kill the golden goose.

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