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What Exactly Is a 'Social Business'?

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • What defines a social business
  • A checklist for determining whether you are a social business

Here we go again. We have a new buzzword. Social media experts, and many others, are now talking about Social Business.

According to Peter Kim, "a social business harnesses fundamental tendencies in human behavior via emerging technology to improve strategic and tactical outcomes." That's an interesting definition, but it sounds like something a consultant would say.

IBM defines social business as an agile, transparent, and engaged organization (of course, it sells collaboration, community, and social-listening tools).

I don't think the definition is that complicated. What does it mean to be a social business? Being a social business is not about having a team of people monitoring LinkedIn, Twitter, and (if you are in the "leading edge"), Google+ and Pinterest. Those are tools and communication channels.

What Makes a Business a Social Business?

What defines a social business can't be relegated to a small rapid-response, crisis-prevention team. The social strategist should be a customer-interaction strategist, not the leader of a support team that is trying to move quickly to avert a Comcast-like crisis or a United breaks guitars viral-video incident. And no formula exists to make content viral, either.

Running a social business has a much deeper meaning. I say "deeper" because becoming a social business requires a fundamental culture change that spreads across the business and changes the way the business operates.

To be a social business, a business must be sincerely interested in listening to customers and empowering employees to have an open conversation with them.

What do I mean? On the one hand, Marketing is paying (struggling) to reach customers to tell the company message; on the other hand, Customer Service is trying to reduce call volume (i.e., trying to talk less to customers). Does that make sense? And why would a company provide better service via its social media team on Twitter than via its 1-800 customer service phone line? As I've noted elsewhere, social is not a strategy and companies need to develop holistic customer interaction and customer service strategies that span traditional and social channels.

So, is your business sincerely interested in listening to customers and empowering employees to have an open conversation with them? To help you find the answer, here is a short Social Business Test.

Are You a Social Business?

Here's a checklist to help you determine whether you're a social business:

  1. You are not a social business if you leave callers on hold for 30 minutes. If you do that, the message you're sending customers is "We don't want to talk to you." (At Rackspace, where I work, customers can connect with a person within six seconds, on average.)
  2. You are not a social business if the emails you send to customers come from "Do Not Reply." Think about it: You are talking to customers and telling them, "Please don't even try to talk to us. We don't care; your email won't even make it."
  3. You are not a social business if you don't list your contact information on your website and if you don't encourage customers to contact you. How many times have you, as a customer, navigated nests of pages to try to find a contact email or 1-800 number? How many buttons does a customer need to push in your phone system to speak with a human?
  4. You are not a social business if you don't have a formal customer-feedback process that gives the team that designs your products and services the opportunity to understand what customers want. A social business needs a system that makes it easy for customers to volunteer feedback and for frontline employees to pass along that feedback—a system that collects and summarizes feedback, and a product-development team that reads the summaries and acts on them.
  5. You are not a social business if everyone in the marketing department doesn't spend time with customers every week. When I was responsible for social strategy for a Fortune 500 company back in 2004, each employee in a division of many thousands was required to spend at least four hours interacting with our customer community. Ask your team, when was the last time its members spoke with a customer (and listened)?
  6. You are not a social business if you don't empower frontline employees to help customers and to have an honest conversation with customers.
  7. You are not a social business if you speak to customers in a different language. You can't connect with customers if you talk to them in consultant-speak, corporate-speak, or marketing-speak (I'm trying not to. It's hard.). Talk to people like they are people, as though you were having a conversation between two humans (you are).
  8. You don't have a social business if your social media team spends most of its time fixing customer problems via Twitter and broadcasting self-centered communications and discounts via Facebook.

* * *

Let's drive the point home. You can have a social business even if you don't have a social media team or a Twitter account. Think about the small business that has employees who talk to customers every day and know them on a first-name basis, and who not only know about customers' personal lives but also care about them. Think about a small business where everyone understands what customers want, and the relationship with customers goes beyond transactions. Now that's a social business.

Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ are only tools to interact with customers. They are awesome tools that have incredible potential to transform your business and its relationship with customers. But you may want to start simply by answering the phone and talking to customers.

Photo courtesy of Tobym under Creative Commons license.

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Gerardo A. Dada is a technology marketer with 15+ years of experience driving business strategy and product marketing for technology companies, including Rackspace, Bazaarvoice, and Vignette/OpenText. He was director of worldwide developer marketing and community at Microsoft and led mobile developer programs and tools marketing at Motorola. Gerardo is author of The Adaptive Marketer blog. Reach him via Twitter at @gerardodada.

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  • by Eraaj Tue Jun 5, 2012 via mobile

    Great post. Totally agree that technology is just an enabler, maintaining a personal touch with customers is crucial.

  • by Mike Tue Jun 5, 2012 via web

    Wonderful reminder that tools while very powerful are still tools and not the destination or purpose of a business.
    Count as one who screams at the on-hold message that tells me how valuable I am while I wait and wait.
    So maybe we should focus less on the shiny new tools and more on the purpose of our business.

  • by Steve Saenz Tue Jun 5, 2012 via web

    Good stuff. As more and more people invoke the term, "social business" to describe their businesses, I am reminded of the gospel according to Matthew...

    "All who draw the sword will die by the sword.” ~ Matthew 26:52

  • by Peter Kim Tue Jun 5, 2012 via web

    I am a consultant and verify that I wrote those words.

  • by Steve Wylie Tue Jun 5, 2012 via web

    Gerardo, thanks for adding some clarity. I'll also point out that there's an entire conference dedicated to Social Business taking place in Boston this month:

  • by Adam Dixson Tue Jun 5, 2012 via web

    Wow - what a great article, thanks. I've been having this conversation in my business a lot recently. That social is an attitude and a way of business, not just a bunch of tools. Thanks again.

  • by Jacob Hartung Wed Jun 6, 2012 via web

    Great post Gerardo!

    Following this, I think it would be interesting to discuss the pros and cons of running a social business.

    There are naturally a number of obvious things like:
    Pros: greater insight into customer needs and customer behavior
    Cons: it requires more resources, etc.

    But an in-depth discussion about the use of the concept, rather than just this - otherwise excellent - definition of it, would be great.

    Perhaps in a following newsletter?

    Best regards
    Jacob Hartung

  • by nadav shem Wed Jun 6, 2012 via web

    well done. great artical. thanks

  • by Marie Wiese Wed Jun 6, 2012 via web

    This is a very good article. So many B2C companies should read it and take action. Things that are so simple and common sense, many companies miss completely. For B2B companies they should also note that the tools are just tools and not another broadcast channel. Too many small business owners want to use social media to sell products instead of seeing it as a means to socialize their ideas which is where they need to start.

  • by Kimberly Edwards Wed Jun 6, 2012 via web

    Excellent post! I could not agree more. Thanks Gerardo!

  • by branddoc Thu Jun 7, 2012 via web

    phrases like social business and brand democracy get bandies around with little understanding of what it means. Great to have a perspective that moves beyond tools and communications. I do think you need to broaden your vision even more. i would build on the comment from Mike. Purpose should be the no 1 on your checklist. You cannot have a social business unless you have a SHARED purpose. a share purpose that is motivating and relevant to both staff and the consumer. We are so all consumed with the customer that we have totally forgot about the company, it's purpose and people. Social starts at home. That brings me to my number two for your checklist. You are not a social business unless the leaders of your business have vision, purpose and are committed to building the internal social culture.

  • by Brad Blake Tue Jun 12, 2012 via web

    Like, like, like...especially the 'checklist'. Though, a little confused on the last one ("You don't have a social business if your social media team spends most of its time fixing customer problems via Twitter and broadcasting self-centered communications and discounts via Facebook"). Totally agree about the self-centered stuff on Facebook, but isn't responding to customers on Twitter a good thing? Granted, shouldn't be ALL they do, but if that is all they do, it's better than the crap most people do with their social efforts. Sorry to be nitpicky - I just so loved the rest of it and that one made me go, "huh?".

  • by Gerardo A. Dada Tue Jun 19, 2012 via web


    Thanks for your comment, and sorryf or the misunderstanding.

    I am not suggesting connecting with customers via Twitter is wrong at all. All companies should consider it. My point is about
    a) 'Self-centered' tweets instead of thinking about twitter a s a tool to interact and help customers, and
    a) using twitter as another way to distribute coupon codes and discounts, You are essentially bribing customers to interact with you, so you are training them to think about your social tools as a way to get codes as opposed to a way to learn more about your products and have a conversation about what customers care about.

    Hope this helps.

  • by Brad Blake Tue Jun 19, 2012 via web

    Absolutely, Gerardo. Thanks for getting back to me. Much appreciated.

  • by Steve Byrne Sat Jun 30, 2012 via web

    Excellent article. Here are a few observations on Social Business:

    -By definition, any “term of art” only lives until the replacement term of art.
    -Social Business, Social Commerce, Social Enterprise etc., all things labeled “social” are becoming tired.
    -Putting the customer first (by whatever terminology) will never become tired or outdated as the smartest corporate brand strategy
    -Over and over again, I have to “opt out” or “reset settings” with Google, Facebook and the leading social brands. Conclusion, ironically social media companies are not truly social themselves, they do what they can get away with, they think.
    -Everyone should review “The Medium Is The Message“ by Marshall McLuhan through the eyes of 2012, or better yet 2018 with some imagination.

    Just my opinion, I’ll get off the soap box now.

  • by Gerardo A. Dada Sat Jun 30, 2012 via web

    Steve, I completely agree. You captured the essence of what I was trying to say: it is not about the buzzwords, tools or technologies - it is about putting the customer first.

    And your observation on Facenook and Google is correct too - in reality they are advertising companies. Just like newspapers and broadcasters.


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