A practitioner’s perspective on putting the SOCIAL back in social business

This entry was posted by on Monday, 3 December, 2012 at

My colleague Kelly Smith (@kellypuffs) and I were having a bit of a chat about social business, as we do nearly every day. In the course of that conversation I said:

“SOCIAL only works where there is a human element. Not just a warm body, but a warm body that embraces humanism.”

Immediately I saw a blog post developing before my eyes… what do I really mean by that simple and misleadingly absolute statement?

In order to excel at social business, any practitioner needs to understand one core concept that drives every activity, post, update, or comment: Humanism. (When I say humanism, I’m not referring to the ideological definition, but rather I’m taking a secondary definition of the term as: the concern with the interests, needs, and welfare of humans.) But even more than to understand the concept is to actually EXHIBIT the traits of humanism so that your audience, your fans, your followers can sense that you are a real and complex person, not just a single faceted marketing shill. After all, shills are easy to spot and get quite boring rather quickly.

Yet, humanism is the critical element most businesses miss when rolling out any social business program. Why is that? Quite simply, companies need to see returns on their investments, and if a company is encouraging social activity by its employees, then it demands to see results (and rightly so, this is a business after all). This pressure to provide direct results actually cause practitioners to focus on corporate messaging and canned phrases, to up the frequency of their chatter about a product or initiative, and ultimately to stop posting about things that aren’t on message.

I’ll call this the “measuring effect”: that the single act of measuring a practitioner’s results will focus that practitioner’s actions towards things that increase their results, while abandoning those which do not directly cause change in measured results.

By example: Johnny is interested in both sailing and brewing beer. Johnny also happens to work for a large brewery which has encouraged him to participate more in social media. At the start, Johnny posts about his yacht crew, rigging a boat, and his latest races, while also discussing his work at the brewery and what ingredients are going into the next batch of beer. Since the Brewery has encouraged Johnny to participate more, they want to see results that are specific to their business so of course they don’t care about his sailing posts and only measure based on Johnny’s brewing posts.

After a while Johnny begins to notice more pressure for better results, and is encouraged to post even more about the brewery, so he starts adding in posts about when the tasting room is open in hopes he can drive more customers in who will hopefully buy more beer. But as time goes by, we see Johnny posting more and more about beer, brewing, and the brewery, and less about sailing even though he is just as active as ever with his yacht crew. Because he is being measured, he has shifted his posts to get the most value for him and sailing posts just aren’t directly adding value to his job.

After a little more time, though, we see Johnny’s posts are now only about the brewery and are nearly all “canned” messages because social engagement has now become just another activity of his job that he is measured against. He has lost his humanism with in his social posts and has moved from what was once a position of influence and interest to just another ignored account that posts the same ideas over and over.

We really can’t blame Johnny, though. We can’t expect someone to go against human nature when it comes to being measured. We all want to excel and when presented with measurements, we all get sucked in to the gamafication aspects and work to improve those measurements however we can. Combine that with expectations/perceptions from upper levels of management that practitioners be “on message” 24×7, and you can easily see how all this serves to skew the critical balance towards shill and away from human.

What we’re missing is how those otherwise “unrelated” posts actually play in directly to the value of the related posts: they build that humanism into the account and cultivate actual relationships. Now, we as the audience can connect more deeply with Johnny as a person when he is posting about sailing and brewing; we can identify with his challenges at work or his triumphs at sea. He is now a complex and interesting multi-faceted person, not just that flat voice with an avatar who is always trying to sell you something. And really, interesting people are the ones you want on your side in the social spaces. They are the ones other people are listening to; they are the influencers, not the “on message” shills.

The call to action for all companies, large and small, who want to excel in social business: Empower your employees to engage online as themselves, as individuals. Give them the freedom to be who they are. Measure results, but do so with a holistic view over time and don’t focus on just company messaging. Your influencer employees will bring results into the business whether in direct tangible fashions or less direct fashions through overall perception and slight shifts in decision-making down the line.

Social business is here to stay; a far more scale-able “word of mouth” model which you can’t ignore. Let’s make sure we’re doing it right, with the long-term benefits of investments in view, not just the short-term immediately measurable results in focus. You can have warm bodies tweeting for you all day to no effect;  what you need are trusted thoughtful people who believe in you and your business.

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image credit: (cc)  Some rights reserved by DonkeyHotey

4 Responses to “A practitioner’s perspective on putting the SOCIAL back in social business”

  1. Susan Peich

    Way to lay out the basics! I know this might be citing a bigger gun, but look at the social presence that Richard Branson keeps. On one hand, he oversees about 400 businesses, but he’s not barking them at you via his personal account. That’s what the @virgin[brand] accounts do. Instead, he’s – like you said – sharing insights and asking you to engage with him on day-to-day issues of his skills, hobbies, and ideas. By being an engaging person, he compels me to find out more about him and his relationships and (alas!) the Virgin brand.

    I’m still noodling on the ROI part because more and more, the return of social business has a qualitative metric for each quantitative one. If someone gets measured by how many comments, shares, or likes that they get, they need the qualitative data to go with that (What relationships did you initiate, maintain or lose? Were there repeat interactions? Etc.). It also has to work in concert with your F2F client-facing activities.

  2. Thanks Susan, and well said with a great real-world example of doing it right! My wife also chimed in over dinner last Friday as I was talking through the draft post and noted that ONLY talking business tends to create the perception that the person is being forced to engage in social media, which I also believes directly and negatively impacts that persons passion for what they do as well. So we see Richard Branson’s passion for what he does, which is then reflected in his business growth… likewise when practitioners talk about their own passions, when they talk about their business, we’re more likely to pay attention because we sense that higher level of personal interest.

    As for ROI and measurement, you’re right on again; the qualitative must also come with the quantitative. More than that, however, the positive returns for social are more long term than most wish it to be, while the negatives can be dramatically immediate which causes both fear to engage as well as a more driving need to see positive results to support the initiatives in the first place. But, we *must* retain that human view when measuring to ensure that we are driving the right behaviour, not just the behaviours that show immediate results in up-ticks of click-throughs or likes.

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