May 2012

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Cover Story

Social Technology - The Next Frontier

Social technology for business is much more than networking on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. Understanding its most critical foundational concepts, and how to integrate them into a business strategy, can be a game-changer for 21st century companies.

By Scott Klososky

Why care about the much-anticipated initial public offering of Facebook this month, LinkedIn’s IPO last year or the potential 2013 IPO for Twitter? Or that in January YouTube was getting four billion hits per day — an increase of 25 percent in only eight months, as reported by Reuters?

Why care? Because social technology in 2012 is not a subject for any business to ignore. The phenomenon of these abilities to connect seamlessly across the world is much more powerful than most people understand at the moment. And it will not be going away.

This expanding social tool box is more powerful than Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or YouTube. These are merely tiny pieces in the wider view, applications of a larger picture that promise to tremendously empower those willing to learn and experiment with new concepts.

The good news is that the cost of putting these tools to work is quite low, so leaders of organizations small and large have a fair shot at stardom. The bad news is that many will disregard the information as not yet relevant. But the reality is that some of the ideas are already making a big difference for early adopters.

 

The World of Social Technologies

To really understand the world of social technology, a primer on its terminology is helpful.

Social networking refers to the tools that allow companies or individuals to communicate, collaborate or be in community with each other — Facebook, Twitter and other leading providers.

Social media refers to sites that allow the uploading of videos, documents, graphics/photos or presentations and share them with the world, by way of YouTube, Scribd, Flickr, Slideshare.net and others.

Social relevance refers to a company or individual online reputation or brand. This covers all of the methods by which a searcher would form an opinion online.

In addition, there are a number of new tasks that have the word “social” bolted in front: SocialCRM and Social Recruiting are good examples. The umbrella term for all of these is “social technologies.”

Social technologies are beneficial to all areas of an organization, not just for driving revenue. Outside of marketing, there are many techniques being used in the world today to lower costs and help organizations get smarter.

Social tools can be compared to the Web itself, inasmuch much as there are benefits for every department. An “eWord of Mouth” marketing campaign can help deliver new prospects through the front door, and a crowdsourcing process can save companies thousands of dollars on a new Web user interface design.

Social technologies are most well known for their ability to help drive revenue in new ways as they fit into the larger marketing. To truly understand what is going on in digital marketing, it’s important to understand the five-element formula comprising digital marketing:

1. Building productive websites. These are the destinations for people to gain access to archived information or to conduct transactions. They will not come to these properties unless they have a specific reason, and websites are not optimized to create ongoing connections.

2. Providing social technologies. These tools create the conversations that build ongoing relationships with clients and establish trust with prospects, for the purpose of sharing valuable information.

3. Mobile tools. For the first time in history, there exists a method for businesses to connect 24/7 with clients geographically and from anywhere in the world. For most businesses, the ability to connect through a mobile device is essential, as clients will want to connect at random times and from random points of origin. An organization must be ready to make that connection.

4. Driving online traffic. After integrating the three elements above, it’s time to drive a much larger volume of traffic than currently exists into a relationship net. There are many tools avail­able for accomplishing this step, such as traditional advertising, search engine optimization and pay-per-click campaigns.

5. Measurement systems. It’s true that what gets measured gets done. Once the first four elements are in place and integrated, create a full suite of measurements to understand exactly what is working and what needs improvement.

Important points to bear in mind are that social technologies are just one of the three legs of the stool, and they play a critical role in that they create the ongoing conversation with a company’s constituents. No other elements have the ability to build an ongoing relationship like social tools.

All businesses must build trust and value-filled ongoing relationships in order to grow and prosper, and the combination of social tools along with Web properties and mobile applications provide powerful tools for augmenting a firm’s ability to do this.

Applying a sophisticated and well-considered digital marketing campaign to the company’s market will result in a change in the sales process that is more profound than it first sounds. The organization will change from one that asks, “Where can I find new clients?,” to “How can I enable clients to find me?”

The world of the 21st century is a highly searchable recommendation economy, one in which it is much more difficult to hunt for new clients without the backing of a digital marketing net.

Companies must learn to use digital marketing to create an environment where individuals can close more sales. It will not be unusual for colleagues to ask for recommendations on business firms through friends on LinkedIn, and then to verify the credentials of the recommendations by doing a search online to see if their own firm is expert and well-regarded by its current clients.

 

The Organizational Voice and Reputation

The first foundational social tool to apply in creating the company’s selling environment is to create and master the delivery of an “organizational voice.” There are many channels through which to deliver this voice, such as Facebook, Twitter, print and video blogs. In many cases, a combination of these should be used to reach diverse audiences.

Building an organizational voice provides a method to communicate with constituents on an appropriately regular basis. Providing real value to clients will produce for the company an “earned media” relationship with its constituents. This replaces many of the “interruption marketing” methods used in the past, such as advertising.

In other words, this approach moves to more conversation and less shouting at clients and prospects. The other benefit of creating such content will be the boost to the firm’s online reputation as it provides digital proof that it is an expert in its field — a key attribute for clients who want to deal with industry experts.

In addition, delivering a useful organizational voice channel tightens the perceived relationship between a company and its clients. This is, of course, if the company’s blogs, Twitter streams and podcasts, among other outlets, are truly interesting to read and full of valuable insights and information.

Absent this, it will not even get a second glance. Provide valuable content and clients will feel that the company is “talking” to them regularly and thus building a value-based relationship, which will serve to augment in-person meetings that must continue.

The next step will provide a number of benefits through one critical technique — the social media campaign. Once the conversation has started, it should be augmented with a large inventory of online assets.

Thankfully, there are very inexpensive ways to communicate with millions of people in an instant. Start by creating custom channels on YouTube, Slideshare.net, Flickr and Scribd. The setup is free, so there is little rationale to delay. Once the accounts are established, create unique and interesting content for each one that would appeal to the client base.

Think in terms of 100 or more assets spread across all channels. Be clever with what is created — creativity and innovation are critical to standing out and attracting lots viral uplift when these assets are sent out.

For example, if it is a financial services company:

Videos that show financial best practices for retirement plans, college savings plans or retirement rollovers;

PowerPoints that highlight specific instructions and steps for teaching young people financial literacy or what it means to have a balanced portfolio.

Pictures and infographics that provide helpful or fun facts about the successful management of money.

Whitepapers that outline everything someone might want to know about possible investment strategies in different economic climates.

 

There are millions of clever ideas for creating digital media assets that will help with business clients and prospects. Those who are especially clever can go viral on the Web and get large amounts of views. So instead of feeling as though expertise is being given away for free, think of it as proving industry expertise to prospects.

Once these assets are uploaded and ready to distribute, there are many ways of reaping the benefits. They can be sent to individual prospects and clients for individual use. Assets can be included in sales proposals and sent to online magazines and newspapers for placement in their online properties. Embedding links to a company website, or having a business partner do the same, can help drive inbound traffic. All of these efforts can go a long way toward building a superior brand.

In addition, consider the eWord of Mouth marketing method. Identify the top 50 bloggers and Twitter users who already have thousands of followers in the relevant market and enlist them in distributing the company’s digital assets. Bloggers and Tweeters are always looking for exceptional content to send to their readers.

Once Web traffic increases, maximizing reputation is the next step in closing deals. A company could do everything else right, and still lose it all by failing to build a positive online reputation.

As mentioned, the social networking world is a recommendation economy, where people make the bulk of their decisions based on what their friends — or the “Internet herd” — says about a product or service. That might seem unfair, or potentially problematic because of the chance of fraud. But instead of fretting about the rise of the Internet as a force in business decision-making and reputation-building, learn to manage the firm’s online reputation to reap benefits, rather than losing out to others who take advantage of it.

Ratings systems and online commentary about products, services and skills will form the basis of a company’s online reputation. Managing reputation should include having a plan for responding to any online comments — negative or positive. Learning to thank people for complimenting performance and products, for example, is a positive reputational step. Analyzing monthly how many times the company is mentioned is also important

 

Just Scratching the Surface

Once the ability to drive more revenue is enhanced, it would be wise to focus on lowering costs and improving the IQ of the team. This can be done through applying crowdsourcing and building rivers of information. Crowdsourcing is the process of leveraging Internet readership to do work on the company’s behalf — less expensively, faster and with more creativity.

There are now more than 150 websites that specialize in various forms of crowdsourcing. Examples include sites to help produce any creative design (new logos, website design or brochures) and sites that do everything from helping to raise money to doing research. Many organizations today are using crowdsourcing to cut thousands of dollars from their monthly bottom line.

All of the social tools that allow people to publish information have created an explosion in the volume of information available on any subject. For example, the financial space is a knowledge economy and the smarter players win, as do the smarter teams.

Yet with the huge quantity of this information flying around in real time, most people are wasting the opportunity to harvest and digest it. That’s a shame because it costs nothing to access this information. For lack of 30 minutes a day and knowing how to use tools such as Netvibes.com, Google Reader, Flipboard, Twellow.com, and blogs.com, people could dramatically improve their financial intelligence. In case the volume of information seems too great to sort out, just remember — it is not information overwhelm, it is filter failure.

The reality is that today’s capabilities are just scratching the surface. The social tool box is vast and growing rapidly. There really is not a choice to just opt out of learning to use the tools. Competitors will be using them and the advantage will be exponentially greater going forward.

Social technology tools are multi-faceted, and have the ability to change an economy that is in chaos to one that is manageable and predictable.

 

Scott Klososky (scott@klososky,com) is founder and chairman of the board of Alkami Technology, a technology startup. He is a much sought-after speaker and former CEO of three startup companies who specializes in looking out over the horizon to describe how technology is changing the world. He’s also authored three books including Enterprise Social Technology (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2011).