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How Social Business Is Not the Same as Social Media

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Perhaps it's the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, but it feels like use of the term “social business” has skyrocketed in recent months.

As someone who co-founded a company around the topic of social business (and spends his days consulting, speaking, and writing about it, too), the idea of social business is obviously a topic that I feel very close to. (Check out this podcast interview here at MarketingProfs.)

On the one hand, people discussing social business is a great thing. Improved awareness in the business community means less work for me in educating clients.

But there’s a flip side: Many posts purporting to talk about social business don't understand the essence of what social business really means. Instead, they substitute “social business” for “social media.” Rarely a day goes by when I don't tweet an obligatory statement that "Social business is not the same as social media!” That confusion, in part, is what prompted Amber Naslund and I to refine our brief "What Is Social Business?

Last week, I was thrilled that this article on MarketingProfs ("What Exactly Is A Social Business?") contained this nugget: “… [becoming] a social business requires a fundamental culture change that spreads across the business and changes the way the business operates." The author is right. It does indeed!

Unfortunately, I didn’t agree with much more. Though that article started out as a reasonable entry into the topic of social business, it effectively became a look at generic measures of customer service and good practices in business. For example, one criterion the author suggests as a litmus test for a social business is this: "You are not a social business if you leave callers on hold for 30 minutes."

If you reverse that anti-criteria, then, does that mean that a business IS a social business if it doesn't leave callers on hold for 30 minutes? Of course not. It is simply a best practice for running a sustainable business with a high customer satisfaction rating.

The definition of a “social business" is not a "business that cares about its customers." My feeling is that type of criteria should be the table stakes for succeeding in business at all.

Rather, being a social business is about transforming an organization’s entire ecosystem of participants (customers, employees, partners, etc.) to be more effective at meeting all the business objectives. So...

  • If you're a customer, that might mean better service or products.

  • If you're an employee, it might mean an empowered culture that allows you to have a voice in a company, as well as a feeling of being valued for your contributions.

  • If you're a partner, it might mean more effective access to materials and smoother compensation paths.

  • If you're head of a department, it could mean tighter integration and collaboration with other department heads.

The result? An organization that is more responsive, more effective at leveraging intelligence and insight, more capable at adaptation and agility, and ultimately more effective.

So why “social business”? Why not “awesome business” or “excellent business” or some other superlative?

In truth, the word “social” in social business has nothing to do with “being social” (although that's obviously a result).

To best understand what social business really means, you must first realize that the primary drivers for organizational change have traditionally been from the inside out. If an organization wanted to create or change its culture, or if it wanted to improve collaboration among its workers, it did so of its own accord, for its own purposes, and on its own timeline. Often, these large-scale initiatives failed as executive sponsors move on, new priorities emerged, and so on.

Fast forward to now. The massive cultural shift in society brought about by social media has flipped this on its head. The value systems of the incoming workforce, the expectations of the customer, the transparency into organizations, and so on have now created drivers from the outside in. Organizations are no longer the sole controller and must react to these changes in an intelligent and coordinated way. Thus, the word "social" in social business refers more to a business transforming itself to take advantage of, and mitigate the risks of, the implications of social media than it does any kind of external engagement.

Perhaps I should amend my daily tweet to "Social business is not social media… and it's not just about engagement."

Matt Ridings is the co-founder of SideraWorks. Follow him on Twitter @techguerilla.

(Photo courtesy of CarbonNYC)

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Matt is the co-founder and CEO of SideraWorks, a social business transformation consultancy. He is a business strategist, speaker, and writer who has worked in digital on both the agency and enterprise side since 1994. He ran interactive for the marketing agency of record for such established brands as Levi’s, Cisco, and British Airways as well as the launch of ventures such as Jet Blue and RedSpark. He has also been involved in his own ventures, including as a partner building out a 300+ person consultancy. His work over the last 10 years has focused primarily in developing innovation cultures, change management initiatives, and specialized market research using social channels

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  • by Jeff Mowatt Wed Jun 13, 2012 via blog

    I started a company as a social business to and created a Linked group on the subject. For us the definition is that of Muhammad Yunus, a non dividend distributing company with a primary social objective. In our case the target has been poverty and childcare reform. This is something from an article we wrote several years ago, to illustrate that it's about more than social media:

    "The corporations involved in this almost fantastical deployment of the machines and communications infrastructure that we now rely on profited for themselves and their shareholders, and certainly produced social and economic benefit around the world. Those efforts were and are so profound in influence as to transform human civilization itself. That is the Information Revolution, and it is nothing short of astonishing.

    So it is safe to say that all these players in the Information Revolution -- the enterprises that created it -- have engendered almost immeasurable social benefit by way of connecting people of the world together and giving us opportunity to communicate with each other, begin to understand each other, and if we want, try to help each other.

    It is that last phrase -- "try to help each other" -- which is what the phrase "social enterprise" is getting at. As Bill Gates said in 2000, "poor people don't need computers." and rejected a business approach to alleviating poverty. That statement served to mark the clear distinction between what traditional capitalism did and did not do. Gates' aim at that time was to profit from people who could afford his company's products, while those who couldn't were largely or completely ignored. That has been the accepted limit of traditional capitalism. It has been a marvelous means of social benefit and economic advancement for many people. Nevertheless, those excluded are just left out.

    The term "social enterprise" in the various but similar forms in which it is being used today -- 2008 -- refers to enterprises created specifically to help those people that traditional capitalism and for profit enterprise don't address for the simple reason that poor or insufficiently affluent people haven't enough money to be of concern or interest. Put another way, social enterprise aims specifically to help and assist people who fall through the cracks. Allowing that some people do not matter, as things are turning out, allows that other people do not matter and those cracks are widening to swallow up more and more people. Social enterprise is the first concerted effort in the Information Age to at least attempt to rectify that problem, if only because letting it get worse and worse threatens more and more of us. Growing numbers of people are coming to understand that "them" might equal "me." Call it compassion, or call it enlightened and increasingly impassioned self-interest. Either way, we are all in this together, and we will each have to decide for ourselves what it means to ignore someone to death, or not."

  • by Matt Ridings Wed Jun 13, 2012 via blog

    Thanks Jeff, I've always struggled with the fact that the term 'Social Business' already had a prior meaning and that it was effectively usurped. I love Muhammad's work and the concept itself. From a naming convention I'm much more in line with my friend Dave Gray who calls it a 'Connected Company'. That said, once a certain saturation point is reached it's difficult to go against the grain from a marketing perspective. A conundrum for sure.

  • by Cory Huff Fri Jun 29, 2012 via blog

    Social media is not social business because it's so much bigger than business.

    Social media is the outgrowth of the human need to communicate, to tell stories, to make a connection with people. It's a real need, in the sense that our souls will die without this communication.

    Early social media was message boards & forums. The Internet quickly became a haven for people to connect with those like themselves. It has become a place to feel safe, to feel connected.

    Business needs to understand that customers and clients are beginning to awaken to the idea that you can't separate your humanity from your professional life. We've finally seen a glimpse of what it can look like to do business in a way that reaffirms humanity, and there's no going back.

    "The massive cultural shift in society brought about by social media..."

    This was the sentence from the article that stuck out to me. Is social media really the thing that brought about the cultural shift, or did it enable a shift that was already happening, becoming a vehicle to express ideas that have been bubbling beneath the surface?

    I don't think anyone sat around and thought, "gee, I really love nameless, faceless corporations." People like doing business with those that they know, like, and trust. Social media has created an easy way to have a dialogue instead of forcing a message.

    I love seeing the way that solopreneurs and artpreneurs have blossomed on the web. These are micro-businesses that love connecting with their customers. They never could have existed 20 years ago, but now there are businesses that thrive solely on the fact that they tell good stories and make strong connections.

    Now I need to go away and write my own lengthy blog post about this.

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