Social business. What is it? It means implementing communication, using social media, across the entire breadth of an organisation.
It seems premature to ask if UK businesses are ready to embrace social business; by all accounts, they’re under-represented in the social media landscape. For example, a British SEO agency discovered that the sign-up rate for social media accounts was low and lagging far behind fast-adopters like the US and Australia.
The picture becomes even more dismal when one considers that social media adopters are predominantly twenty-something, web-savvy entrepreneurs who understand the power that a laptop and a Facebook page can give a business. Why are we so slow to adopt a social model?
There’s a deep UK tradition of innovation that goes back to the very early days of advertising, two centuries ago. So I have to ask: Is there more to this slow adoption than just an unwillingness to change and embrace new technologies?
Social media marketing and a social business are opposite sides of the same coin. Whereas the former uses social networks to create a marketing presence and reach a new audience, the latter creates a parallel, borderless world within the environment of the enterprise itself. Key to both is a radical transparency which comes with honesty and accountability integrally attached.
As the seminal social business textbook The Cluetrain Manifesto said, “Markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. ... The human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can't be faked.”
To be made to work, both require a clear understanding of business goals and social media purpose across the entire business. As it happens, this is the real problem.
Legacy business models are wired to adapt and move with change — but not with disruption. When brick-and-mortar companies moved to telephone sales, I still remember the shocked faces of executives who realised that their carefully managed, immaculately presented company image could be ruined by just one call centre enployee having a bad day.
The “On the phone you are the company” campaign started to deal with this. I was involved in communication strategies for the John Lewis Partnership at the time; training materials were making the rounds in other big companies that were expanding into telephone sales, like M&S and CIS.
It became manageable because, despite the apparent disruption presented by telephone contact with the public, the potential for damage was limited and the vertical systems of command-and-control could remain intact.
Other innovations were adopted enthusiastically by UK businesses, such as company-wide email and intranets; these empowered employees and made businesses more responsive without endangering the divides that had been put in place.
But social media isn’t like that. Your every mistake is in plain view, and the solutions you provide are closely scrutinised. Your role and purpose are open to question, your value is under constant assessment, your views and responses are being constantly examined.
UK businesses have been on an evolutionary path since the 1980s, which has helped them develop internal and external working models that are responsive to their immediate market environment and geared towards ever-increasing efficiency. However, 24/7 social media chatter erodes the time-honoured markers of ‘working hours,’ and makes the divides between personal and professional relationships porous.
Sadly, it’s something that many firms are ill-equipped to deal with. The expansion of social media, however, is moving on, whether or not businesses are ready.
According to the 2011 Ofcom Communications Market Report, the number of UK households online actually exceeded the number of households with a PC . In other words, UK consumers are using smartphones to get online, which inevitably means an increase in social network use, rather than regular Web surfing.
The challenge ahead for UK businesses is as large as it is imperative, with a home market mired in a tight economy. Success with sales, market share, customer loyalty and the all-important profit margin, lies in firms’ ability to engage their customers while lowering operating costs.
Social business promises to provide the answer, but it does require more than mere lip service.