Is social media about to revolutionize the way corporations communicate? Are they finally "getting it"? Should PR, marketing and advertising folks pack it up and start looking for new jobs? Not exactly, but the tidal wave is coming and everyone better get prepared, according to Charlene Li, the Forrester analyst turned book author who spoke last night in Palo Alto. She spoke at the monthly Third Thursday event, sponsored by the Society of New Communication Research and hosted by Voce Communications.
Her book is appropriately named Groundswell, which she describes as a "social trend" that is bubbling up across corporate America, changing the way they communicate with employees, shareholders, the media and everyone else. In a soft sort of way, she challenged everyone to get on top of this, and like the original American Revolution, she said we need more revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson to bring this to fruition.
I don't completely buy into the idea that this is going to happen as fast as proponents like Ms. Li believe, and despite all the noise, I have a hard time comparing Mark Zuckerberg, the 22 year-old Facebook CEO, or anyone else, to our founding fathers in this deal. I've seen successful case studies, and been involved in a couple myself. But I've also seen many cases where it's not panning out as expected (with corporate blogs for instance), and communications managers are scrambling to salvage it. Much needs to be done to move this movement forward inside our companies. It may be happening but it's in fits and starts.
Still, I do believe this is the right direction and I came away impressed with Li's work in this area and enthusiasm. Any movement needs a few strong evangelists, and she's definately out there. I wanted to buy a book, but by then they'd all be snapped up by the 30 or so audience members (I ordered it on Amazon).
As I'm listening to her, it's clear that she's describing a new way of thinking.
In the "groundswell" world, objectives--which are key to everything--look different.
Research objectives are about listening
Marketing is about talking to your customer and opening up discussion lines vs "shouting" at them
Sales is about energizing the customer base.
Support is about getting customers to support each other (something Dell and others are doing with their forums)
Product development is about involving the customers in the process...and so on.
So companies are urged to throw out the old playbooks and engage with the customer. You've heard this before, but Li does have some examples and studies to back her up.
For instance, Del Monte has a site "Listening to dog owners," which help them develop a product called Snausages breakfast bites (don't laugh--it's true). Proctor & Gamble (seller of Tampons) sponsors a site where young girls can go on and talk about all sorts of personal life issues. Stats are scarce on what the return has been on these, but apparently some are getting traction. P&G has expanded the site to 29 countries.
These companies follow a small number of keys to success:
* Start with your customers
* Choose an objective you can measure
* Line up executive backing
* Romance the naysayers
* Start small, think big
Speaking of ROI, Li did provide one example out of her book, using the GM blog Fastlane. Forrester figured out that the total cost of the GM CEO blogging at least one hour a week for a year was $285,000--CEO's aren't cheap when it comes to their time. This number is likely high since they included everything but the kitchen sink. They then estimated the total benefit (press stories, word of mouth, advertising visibility, etc) to be $353,000-- a pretty good return. You can argue with these numbers-- of course, the GM blog received more media attention its first year--but these still provide us a rough gauge.
Li said there are plenty of ways to measure social media results--most of which communicators have been using for years. The challenge is "what sort of value do you put on these?" I found this to be an interesting issue: what value do you place on RSS feeds from your key partners or investors, for instance, vs a simple Joe Off the Street who stumbled on to your blog? And how do you even define "real value" to measure? If a company is striving through its CEO blog to develop an image as an industry thought leader, their measurement may be far different than another company seeking to soften its image or drive sales.
Until social media advocates get this figured out, the idea of transforming corporate America is going to take awhile (one clue: ClueTrain Manifesto, the first to raise these issues, was published in 1999).
Of course, all good revolutions take time.The good news is people like Li are working on it. I look forward to reading the book.