Depending on whose statistics you choose to believe, somewhere between 87% and 98% of companies now have a presence on social media sites. Whichever figure is more accurate, it’s fairly clear that if your company doesn’t use at least one of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, etc., it is in an ever-decreasing minority.
Social media has changed the way businesses communicate with their customers, but it has done little to change the way people within the business communicate with each other. Yet this distinction is often lost amidst over-generalized definitions of “social business”. Consumer-focused social networks have a significant part to play in modern business communication, but it is essential that the strengths and weaknesses of each type of network is understood if we are to use them effectively.
Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ and YouTube are primarily business-to-consumer and consumer-to-consumer networks. They offer immense customer reach – with 1 billion active users on Facebook and 300 million on Twitter, these networks are a great place to make contact with customers and prospects. But they’re not great places to have meaningful conversations with customers, so should usually be complemented by company-managed customer communities.
Unfortunately, relatively few companies use social media as part of an integrated social business strategy. Most companies’ Facebook and Twitter pages are fairly traditional marketing operations which broadcast advertising messages without any real sign of true customer engagement. And many that do attempt engagement clearly struggle to build meaningful relationships within the rather simplistic confines of a consumer-focused network.
However, describing the best way for companies to use Facebook and Twitter is not the purpose of this series. Yes, they do have an important role in business communication, but they are not a full solution for customer engagement. And if they are imperfect customer engagement tools, they are even worse as employee-to-employee or business-to-business tools.
The idea of creating a private Facebook group for employees to discuss work issues may initially sound appealing – employees are probably already on Facebook, and it might give the impression that management “get” social media. But Facebook is fundamentally not designed for business communication – it provides little ability to categorize or search for information, and fairly poor data management capabilities. As a result, it is of little use for “real work” and is only suitable for office chatter and trivialities, delivering very little business value. We will return to this point in the next article when we consider enterprise social networks.
We need to recognise that there are three distinct types of social networks, and an integrated social business strategy uses all three to improve communications with different groups of people.
Public social networks like Facebook and Twitter – good for making contact with customers and prospects
- Social extranets including customer communities, for deeper communication and collaboration with customers, and private business-to-business networks for communication with partners and B2B customers.
- Employee networks for internal company communication
Of the prominent public social networks, perhaps the hardest to categorize is LinkedIn. It is often described as a business-to-business network, but it really isn’t; LinkedIn doesn’t describe itself as such. It is a network of professionals who work for businesses, but is a person-to-person network rather than business-to-business. Cynics might describe it as just a recruitment site or glorified address book, and a large percentage of the claimed 225 million active users do use it like that. But there are clear signs of aspirations from LinkedIn to become a more useful business tool, enabling companies to promote their products, and sales people to find customers. Even so, as an environment for employee or B2B collaboration, it suffers from the same problems as Facebook – an over-simplistic environment for real work. So I would characterize LinkedIn in the first category, a business-focused public social network – good for making contact, but not so good for deeper collaboration.
Of the three types of network, it is internal employee networks that businesses have made least progress in deploying, despite research showing that these offer the greatest potential business value. The promise of internal enterprise social networks remains largely unfulfilled; in the next chapter we will examine the reasons for this.