IIC Partners investigates how social media can be sensibly adapted for business use.
Without doubt, social media is transforming our social and private lives. We can connect more easily with friends and old school mates, read reviews of products and services from other consumers before we decide to buy a TV or book a hotel room - even find a soul mate.
But professionals have wildly different views on, and experiences of, social media for business-to-business use. There are fervent advocates, firms whose staff are blogging, tweeting, setting up LinkedIn and Facebook pages. They see social media platforms as a key communication medium of the future. Others regard social media with clear distain and see its use as damaging to both brand and reputation.
Wherever you sit on the social media opinion spectrum, be in no doubt that it cannot and should not be ignored. And because social media is still very much in the early developmental and experimental phase, because it is so instantaneous, because new forms of social media are emerging all the time, it's extremely difficult for researchers to forecast medium to long term trends of its impact in all business sectors and different geographical regions. The result of this is that your company, if not prepared, could find itself, quite quickly, trailing your competition.
Hearst Magazines UK is a wholly-owned subsidiary of US-headquartered global media giant Hearst Corporation. It publishes 22 magazines and 21 websites in the UK.
Its CEO Arnaud de Puyfontaine, also Executive Vice President of Hearst Magazines International, believes that all companies now, regardless of sector and geographical region, need to have a social media strategy - even if they are not using social media.
"Whether you want to use it or you don't want to use it, you have a corporate image and a role within a social environment, whether you like it or not. In one way or shape or form, you are going to be taken by social media," says Arnaud.
"Social media will continue to impact on the provision of information, including traditional media. It has to be part of the way brands manage their reputation and their image. But it will not replace the power of trusted sources of information. People form opinions and take decisions on trusted facts."
Arnaud says that there is no balance in social media between fact and opinion, or assurances on the integrity of information that is communicated via social media. But he says social media is not a threat to the provision of information of integrity, "Because it's a fad - Look at TripAdvisor which you can manipulate. The day I own a hotel and resort I will be very happy to use TripAdvisor to get lots of five star reviews. And Wikipedia. You can read on Wikipedia I have five wonderful daughters - of course, one of my daughters wrote it and she was absolutely right!"
Arnaud says his profession, the media industry, which should really be leading in this area, is still adapting to the impact of social media.
"We distribute and circulate content the way our consumers want to consume it. Social media is a catalyst for change in traditional media along with the internet and e-commerce, which are enabling the media industry to think radically about what type of ecosystem it has to build.
"The traditional definition of the media - broadcast, radio and print - is becoming less and less relevant. What is important is to be able to focus the raison d'être of the media around each customer. How are we going to leverage our connection? With Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar, we build around this connection to create a more in-depth relationship which is a multi-touch-points approach to make the relationship more and more of an addiction, and with more with more and more must haves, to create opportunities to get into new revenue sources.
Arnaud believes that social media has the potential to damage corporate and personal brands if it is not regulated and note integrated into corporate strategy.
"I am a racing driver but I respect the speed limit. Theoretically I could do 150 miles on the road, but I don't. Every potential tool has the potential for excess, it's how you regulate to make the tool a positive rather than a negative. I am a chief executive. My private face is not going to interfere with my public face.
"There will always be excesses, but for a company to have more connections with its customers is a positive - that is the way I view it."
Eighteen months ago Kris de Jager of IIC Partners' Australia-based member firm de JAGER & Associates decided that social media was the way forward.
"At the time I was extremely committed to speed up our level of interaction within the social media space. I engaged an outside expert and gave him carte blanche to act on our behalf as though he was an employee.
"But he did not take us on a journey, he ran away from us. He made of a lot of assumptions in terms of our commitment and understanding of social media and our engagement levels. I had a lot of people in the firm who were totally against the whole thing. The problem is you can't learn live - it was a hell of a price to pay.
"We had a blog, a Linkedin group, a Twitter account and various other sites. And once these blogs and tweets go out and they are out there forever. Eighteen months later I am still getting 50 to 60 WordPress posts every week asking me to comment on things I wrote eighteen months ago.
"Experts in the digital and social media industry do a lot without thinking as it is still a new volatile and evolving space. Simply getting exposure is often seen as success and it's not about the quality of the communication.
"You have to be very careful about what goes out into cyberspace as it is so sensitive to cultural interpretation. A colleague in India could say something that is perfectly acceptable as a business communication in India, but which could embarrass the company in Russia."
Kris has seen many professionals enthusiastically seize social media tools only to end up posting what they ate for breakfast or worse, sycophantic commentary of no value to their audience.
"If you blog or tweet it has to be strategic and of genuine value. Be aware it may not be relevant six months later and you can't defend it. You have to be able to feed quality content on a continuous basis because you lose credibility if you can't keep up the pace or the quality. You need to decide who your information is directed at; there are a lot of people who have a very dim view of social media.
"And from a compliance point of view you have to be very, very careful. If someone says something that is contentious or is even illegal, the whole company can be implicated. Social media communication is only as strong as the weakest link. It only takes one....
"I believe that social media is the communication medium for the future without any doubt. But professionals need to ensure they have mechanisms in their organizations to control what goes out. The people with most technical expertise in a business are never the most knowledgeable when it comes to the core business and content.
"So we have done away with the tweets, our Facebook pages and blogs. We are still on Linkedin. We are very strict with what we post to ensure consistency. Photographs, definitions, grammar opinions are all very professional. That is where we are right now. From a brand positioning point, it's not right to become too reliant on social media."
Golden Rules for Getting it Right
Social media for professional communications is evolving at different rates within countries and business sectors, and its acceptance as a professional communication tool varies between these countries and sectors. Social media walks a blurred line between personal and professional communication.
1. Be useful - Seek out and share content that is going to be of value or interest to your target audience - your clients and other contacts; take a client-centric 'outside-in approach';
2. Be generous - Share other people's tweets, updates and blogs when you value what they have written, and you believe other contacts and clients may also value the information;
3. Show yourself - Inject some personality into your blogs/tweets to create genuine touch points with clients and others. Why you are running the London Marathon for charity is interesting, especially if it has provided professional learning points; spotting a celebrity or saying you just ate breakfast is not;
4. Be appropriate - Do not advertise, or worse, say how great you or your firm are. If you need to criticize, criticize the idea not the person;
5. Be perfect - Ensure grammar and spelling are correct;
6. Start at a pace you can maintain - Don't blog or tweet or post every day or every few days if you can't maintain the pace and quality of information.
And of course, check to see your organization's brand and messaging guidelines - what you post may need authorization first, even if you are doing it in your own time.
International Social Media Usage
Research by Neilsen, published in September 2011, shows stark differences in social media take-up and preferences in 10 countries - Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The United Kingdom and Australia are the countries with the highest percentage of internet users in the world, in terms of percentage of total population at 82.7% and 80.1% respectively, according to Internetworldstats.com). They were also the only two countries where LinkedIn, which is the leading global social media platform for professionals, featured in the top five most popular social media platforms among internet users. In the UK, 9.31% of internet users use LinkedIn, compared with 10.34% in Australia.
Across all 10 countries reviewed, the use of Twitter varied greatly with Brazil at 31.37%, Japan 24.1%, Spain 13.82%, the UK 13%, the USA 12.37% and Australia 10.66%. Twitter didn't make the top five list in the other countries. Google-owned Blogger, and the self-hosted WordPress, both popular free-to-use blogging tools, also feature strongly. In Brazil 53.73% of internet users use Blogger, compared to WordPress at 28.3%, in Spain Blogger is at 43.15% and WordPress is at 19.04%, in Italy Blogger is at 30.74% and WordPress is at 13.5%, in Australia 26.57% of internet users use Blogger and 13.32% use WordPress, in the UK, Blogger is at 22.5% and WordPress at 10.39 and in the USA Blogger is at 23.96% and WordPress is at 10.23%. France and Germany have Blogger at 19.4% and 13.16% respectively (WordPress did not make the top five social media platforms in France or Germany).
And in China, Facebook and Twitter are banned.