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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What Exactly Is a 'Social Business'?

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image of Gerardo A. Dada

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.