From Social Media to Social Business


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Social media, or perhaps we should call it “social business,” is a sea change that will affect every aspect of the organization. Nowhere is this more evident than at the intersection between an organization and its customers. Customers, once solely at the “receiving” end of corporate communications, are now not only entering conversations with organizations but are, more importantly, increasingly entering into online conversations with each other around products and brands.

In this article, we will address:

  • What is social media?
  • How is “social media” morphing into “social business?”
  • What are the ROI and other metrics organizations should be putting in place to address social business activities?
  • How does an organization get started?

What is social media?

In both professional and personal life, human beings naturally form groups based on affinities and expertise. We gravitate to others with whom we share interests. Most of us belong to real world networks that formed organically. Not surprisingly, these networks rapidly migrated to the online world.

These four components—profiles, connections, content and activities—form the pillars of what makes a social site “social.”

Online social networking has been around in various forms for nearly a decade, and has begun to achieve wide notice in the past few years. Online social networks take many forms, and are created for many reasons. Despite their differences, online social networks do, however, commonly exhibit a number of the following concepts.

Profiles—Each member in a network has an online profile that serves as the individual’s identity in the network. In the professional context, profiles often contain information regarding the individual’s experience, education, interests and affiliations, as well information about the individual’s skills and resources.

Connections—Online social networks typically enable individuals to make connections with others in the network. In some cases, these connections are implicit, and derived from past actions (such as sending an email to another member of the network). In other cases, the connections are explicit, and are set up and created by the members themselves.

Content—Content is the information created in, posted on and shared via a social networks. Content comes in the form of text, photos, video and the like. Historically, content “was” the web. Things have changed markedly, however, and it is now understood that “content” itself only is only one facet of the social web.

Activities—When individuals participate (or even peruse) social sites online, there are myriad “activities” taking place. Logging in, joining a group, posting a photo, commenting on a post, “friending” a colleague, and rating a document are all examples of “activities” that take place in social networks. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter have broken new ground in making those activities “visible” to other members of the community by logging them and, in many cases, making their existence visible to others in the community.

These four components—profiles, connections, content and activities—form the pillars of what makes a social site “social.”

Now, within these social spaces, there is a form of “social currency” that flows between their members. Douglas Rushkoff defines “social currency” thusly:

“Social currency is like a good joke. When a bunch of friends sit around and tell jokes, what are they really doing? Entertaining one another? Sure, for a start. But they are also using content—mostly unoriginal content that they’ve heard elsewhere—in order to lubricate a social occasion. And what are most of us doing when we listen to a joke? Trying to memorize it so that we can bring it somewhere else. The joke itself is social currency. “Invite Harry. He tells good jokes. He’s the life of the party.

“Think of this the next time you curse that onslaught of email jokes cluttering up your inbox. The senders think they’ve given you a gift, but all they really want is an excuse to interact with you. If the joke is good enough, this means the currency is valuable enough to earn them a response.

“That’s why the most successful TV shows, web sites, and music recordings are generally the ones that offer the most valuable forms of social currency to their fans. Sometimes, like with mainstream media, the value is its universality.”

Social currency is currency, like the greenback, that we exchange with those around us as part of our everyday interactions. In other words, “social currency” is the stuff we talk about with our friends, and colleagues, and family.

The best Super Bowl ads, for example, revolve around this idea of social currency. The most memorable ads invoke the “Did you see that?!?!” factor around the water cooler. Through this concept, organizations add their memes to the “social currency” supply.

When we think about “social media,” then, we need to realize we are talking about something that is fundamentally much larger than simply using a new channel to transmit our same old content (there’s that word again) in a shiny new way. We are actually in a transition period to a different way of doing business.

From “Social Media” to “Social Business”

Churchill famously stated, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” The fact that many “social media” startups have shuttered their doors in recent months as the global financial crisis has dragged on may, in time, prove to illustrate a similar sentiment.

Although “social” currently is often under the purview of communications-oriented media functions within an organization, the concepts are finding their way into every aspect of the business. Three quick examples:

  • Communities such as InnoCentive are using social business concepts to bring together “Seekers” and “Solvers” with a goal of rapidly accelerating fundamental areas of business innovation.
  • Internal product development teams are using tools with heavy social components such as Basecamp for product and project management.
  • Customer support is being “socialized” with communities such as those driven by GetSatisfaction, which provides infrastructure for “people-powered” customer service.

In fact, “social” seems to be affecting nearly every aspect of business. A great example of this is an interview with John Chambers, CEO of Cisco, that appeared in August in the New York Times.

In 2001, we [Cisco] had a near-death experience. We went from the most valuable company in the world to a company where they questioned the leadership. And in 2003, he [Jack Welch] called me up and said, “John, you now have a great company.” I said, “Jack, it doesn’t feel like it.” But he was right.

Q. How has your leadership style evolved over time?

A. I’m a command-and-control person. I like being able to say turn right, and we truly have 67,000 people turn right. But that’s the style of the past. Today’s world requires a different leadership style — more collaboration and teamwork, including using Web 2.0 technologies. If you had told me I’d be video blogging and blogging, I would have said, no way. And yet our 20-somethings in the company really pushed me to use that more.

Q. Did you need to be pushed?

A. I thought I was very leading-edge in terms of how I communicated. My team just kept pushing, and I finally said, “Why do you want me to do this?” And they said: “John, if you don’t do it our company won’t learn how to do this. It won’t be built into our DNA for the way we interface with customers, our employees. The top has to walk the talk.” I was expecting text blogging and we did video blogging.

The first one was a little bit uncomfortable, because it’s very unprofessional. You just basically put a camera there, and you go. By the second one, I realized this was going to transform communications — not just for the C.E.O., but it would change how we do business.”

Did you catch that last part? “It would change how we do business.”

Social affects every aspect of the organization.

What are the ROI and other metrics organizations should be putting in place to address social business activities?

We’ve seen organizations that seem to believe that they can simply sprinkle magic social faerie dust on their existing business efforts. “We need to be doing things on Twitter! An Facebook! And FriendFeed! And Flickr! And YouTube! And…”

Social efforts must support both business goals and the goals of the individuals in the community

And…hold on a second. (And, most importantly, please do not start the conversation by putting up a slide that looks like someone simply pulled together every logo that’s appeared in the context of Web 2.0 over the past two years, and claim that as a “Social Media Strategy.”)

The thing that seems to tether the conversation to reality is the conversation around metrics. Metrics are how we tie the “why” of social to the business. Social efforts must support both business goals and the goals of the individuals in the community (whether those individuals are internal resources or customers and prospects themselves).

There are three reasons for this thinking:

  • If the business goals around “social” are not defined, the community risks being feature driven, and may suffer from chasing “the next big thing,” regardless of how “the next big thing” connects with the business itself.
  • If the community members themselves are not involved in the success-definition process, the community members may find the communications efforts irrelevant to their goals.
  • If the business goals are undefined, of if community members themselves are not involved in the creation of the community, the community’s risk of failure may grow substantially.

According to Joseph Cothrel (Cothrel, J. P., 2000, Measuring the Success of an Online Community. Strategies & Leadership, v. 20, no. 2, pp 17-21. MCB University Press), efforts of this type can be measured on the three dimensions of financial metrics, activity metrics and “other” metrics.

Financial metrics are those metrics that can be connected directly to financial measures. Examples of these metrics include sales, advertising performance, customer subcription renewals, cost savings in customer support, and other hard-dollar measurements.

Financial metrics, however, are not always easily calculated. Activity metrics can be used to track other measurable items of interest to the organization. Metrics such as web site visits, community size, frequency and volume of social contribution and the like can be used as a way to understand the trajectory of the social business efforts, even if they can’t be (immediately) tied back to bottom line measures.

In addition to financial and activity metrics, there are a host of other metrics that can be implemented as well, such as tracking the topics of communication that garner the most interest or measuring changes in sentiment over time.

How does an organization get started?

When venturing down the social path, it seems for some reason that the natural inclination is to jump right in and start prescribing technology. While the technology is an enabler, there are still the basic questions that need to be answered in order to get things off on the right path, and help to stack the deck in favor of success. The fundamentals of what an organization needs to think about before embarking on a social media activity could not be more familiar to us. They are the basics of communication.


Why do this? Why get social? Sometimes, the answer is simply “In order to connect.” And, in the case of many efforts, that answer is sufficient. However, as is more often the case, there are additional reasons to jump in: better and more timely feedback from customers, the ability to connect with others working on similar problems, putting a human face on what had been historically a sterile organization, creating a framework for communications, or, most importantly, creating a platform for enabling better/broader/more timely information exchange.

The “why” is critical. (And, as a point of note, “because we want to explore this and get to understand it” may be the right answer. When that’s the case, make sure that expectations are set accordingly.) The John Chambers case above (“as an example to the rest of the organization”) is a perfectly valid reason as well.


Social is about people. Period. Who are the people involved? Who will be the primary contributors to the effort? What are their backgrounds? Who are they as people? In addition, who are the other people who will be interacting with the environment, even if they don’t initially contribute? In many social efforts, the ratio of commenters-to-posters is large; the ratio of readers-to-commenters is astronomical. What’s in it for each of those constituencies? Does the environment support them and provide what they need? What value does each group derive from it?

Similarly, there are typically a handful of “power” users, a slightly larger group of sometimescontributors, and a huge group of people who may only be observing. (Members of this last group are commonly referred to as “lurkers.) What’s in it for them?


Online gathering places are examples of the “third place” as defined by Oldenberg: a “place” other than home or work, for democracy, civil society, and social engagement. Is what you are putting together a destination, or a directory that sends people forth on their journeys? (Both are relevant.) What does the place feel like? Is it open, or exclusive? Is it part of a larger site, or a stand-alone entity? How will people find it?


Is the activity that you are proposing using social media an ongoing concern, or tied to a particular event? Note that unless there is a large, existing group of participants, it will oftentimes take a few months, perhaps even a year, to achieve “critical mass.”

It’s like planting a garden.


“How” is all about the norms of the place. What’s the tenor of the interaction? Is it “strictly business,” or relaxed? Is it moderated, or free-wheeling? What will participants do if their contributions are edited or deleted? If there is a “topic,” will off-topic discussions be immediately squelched, or will the interactions be free-form, like a lively dinner party?

Additionally, a key “how” item is thinking about how the site’s members deal with “trolls” and spammers. Will the be ignored? Banned? Given a warning? Deleted without comment? Sent to “time out” for a period of time?

Much of the “how” derives from the “who.” The types of individuals who collectively make up the constituency of the place are the ones who will drive the “how.” Heavy-handed moderation will make the place constricting, yet too lax a policy will rapidly devolve the interactions into noise.

Social is business

The best social media / social business efforts are pragmatic in nature. They tie to metrics that are relevant to the business. They connect to the fundamentals of communication and story telling. They are rooted in the things that should be of no surprise to business professionals. Yet, at the same time, social can be frightening to organizations that historically have relied up command-and-control based infrastructure.

Ultimately, social means bringing the right people together for the right reasons, and allowing them the freedom to do the right things to enable the business to flourish.

Christopher Carfi
Ant's Eye View
Social Business strategist advising clients such as Google, HP, Cisco, P&G and others.



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