Bringing Social Media To The C-Suite

Ready or not, social media are now considered the sine qua non of communication for innovative enterprises. Companies are using blogs, microblogs (microsharing technologies like Twitter) and social-networking and sharing sites like YouTube (video sharing), Facebook and the more business-oriented LinkedIn to engage more deeply with customers, build their brands and generally get their message out and draw ideas in. Executives are beginning to use these tools to expand their networks, foster professional relationships, share ideas and solve problems.

At least that’s the narrative being promulgated in the age of short adoption cycles and shorter attention spans. And, despite its froth, much of it is true — or at least potentially true. But the question of how these technologies can actually be useful is often conveniently begged by companies and executives in a rush not to be left behind. “Too many times, especially when it comes to social media and technology, businesses flock to the hot new trend or the shiny new object with delusions of grandeur,” says Jason Falls, social media strategist and principal of Social Media LLC. “Two years ago, clients would come to me and say, ‘I want a blog.’ Today, they say, ‘I want a Facebook page,’ or ‘I want a Twitter account.’ My answer has always been the same: Why? Seldom can they answer that question.”

So far, most business usage of social media has been at the enterprise level, in marketing, sales, customer service, public relations and internal communications. Although many early adopters have been newer, more nimble and more Web-based firms, many larger, more established companies — like Intel, H&R Block, Southwest Airlines, Cisco and Whole Foods — have been right behind them.

At this point, most of the principals and senior executives who sing the praises of social media as an individual leadership tool also tend to be from companies indigenous to the social media landscape, such as Zappos.com, Digg, Pitch Engine, Buzzillions.com and Lexblog. But many more are beginning to experiment or at least to wonder whether and how they should be more connected — and to whom.

From a purely statistical perspective, social media usage continues to grow. According to Web analytics company Compete.com, Twitter’s meteoric rise reached 23.5 million users in October 2009 and has leveled off since, prompting some negative buzz. But Twitter’s traffic was still up nearly 600% for the year. Also in October, Facebook usage was up 3.5% to 129 million visitors, LinkedIn up 3.29% to 15.5 million and YouTube up 0.72% to 84.6 million. In what might represent the beginnings of a bit of consolidation, usage was down slightly for both MySpace and Flickr (photo sharing).

There have been few, if any, large-sample studies done about how social media are being used, especially within the enterprise and most especially with the C-suite. One study that comes close to filling that bill is from Gartner, the technology research and advisory firm that annually produces a report it calls its “Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies.” At 55 pages, the most recent report (released in July 2009) provides a broadly based but case-driven perspective across industries on the technologies and trends that IT managers should consider including in their portfolios.

Gartner’s Hype Cycle characterizes the typical progression of an emerging technology through five phases. It begins with a “technology trigger,” when proof-of-concept and media interest trigger significant publicity, and leads next to the “peak of inflated expectations,” when some early adopters experience conspicuous success, but failures also begin to get public attention. A decline into the “trough of disillusionment” follows, as implementations increasingly fail to deliver and companies in the space begin to shake out. There follows a slow rise up the “slope of enlightenment,” as the technology becomes better understood and second- and third-generation products begin to appear. Finally, a “plateau of productivity” is reached as mainstream adoption starts to take off and criteria for assessing provider viability are more clearly defined.

According to Jackie Fenn, Gartner vice president and one of the authors of the 2009 report, despite evidence of growing experimentation and broader adoption, “social software and microblogging sites such as Twitter have tipped over the peak and will soon experience disillusionment among enterprise users.” This, the report says, is in part because of channel pollution — that is, the beneficial effects of having exponential conversations are to some degree being cancelled out by the exponential increase in the noise and nonsense that has to be filtered out. This is to be expected from a tool that was originally designed for collaboration among mobile work groups of fewer than 10 members.

Still, the report predicts that in one year, microblogging will be a standard feature in 80% of the social software platforms on the market and is earning its place alongside such other channels as e-mail, blogging and wikis as an enabler of new kinds of fast, easy-to-assimilate exchanges. “You have to be careful when interpreting the hype and disillusionment part of the cycle as a negative,” says Jordan Frank, vice president of sales and business development at Traction Software, a company that adds security, threaded discussion, moderation and document management to enterprise social software. “Many if not all technologies go through a period where there is more speculation than reality. Then the reality settles in, some adopters fall off, and then the serious use cases emerge and real money is spent. As we see it, and Gartner seems to agree, social software platforms are finding their way into mainstream enterprise — with the wiki as the leading app where enterprises see real and obvious value.”

Of all these social media, Twitter and microblogging in general currently seem to be generating the most curiosity in the enterprise context and in the C-suite particularly. The concept is not complex. As a Twitter user, for example, you have a limit of 140 characters to communicate a single message — from the bright to the banal — as many times a day as you wish. The result is a kind of stream of consciousness or random diary. Others can follow your narrative, if you’ve agreed to it, which causes each of your messages or “Tweets” to show up on their Twitter home page. Or you can follow them. The more people you follow, the more rivulets feed the stream that shows up on your home page and not always in a very coherent manner. You can also direct message others in what is essentially a form of texting. All these communications can be viewed and updated on the Web, through desktop apps, and on mobile devices.

Twitter also offers tools that help its users to network and find followers. It will search for matches in others’ profiles, suggest like-minded people based on the content of their Tweets and allow keyword searches of Tweets. But, as one user warns, “relying on the hundreds of Twitter engines may get you thousands of followers but not the right followers. Twitter will work only for those who know how to use it.”

As fragmented and hieroglyphic as it sometimes seems, Twitter has increasingly come to be viewed as a source of inside information where small talk can lead to value. Professionals are using it most often to post and answer questions in their areas of expertise, attempting to establish credibility, solve a problem or simply keep up with what’s happening in their industries. Twitter is also being used as an advance scout of sorts, pulling audiences to one’s blog or company Web site.

“You are already having these conversations every day in your e-mails, in your interactions with customers and prospects,” says Chris Baggott, CEO of Compendium Blogware. “These conversations help people, provide information and solve problems. You have already invested in that content, so why not share it with others who can benefit?” The answer to that question is personal. Like all other forms of “social media” dating back to cave walls, Twitter is simply a communication tool with strengths and limitations that may or may not be useful to you, depending on your temperament, your business and your goals. That said, Gartner analyst Jeffrey Mann offers the following advice to C-suite executives: “Adopt social media sooner rather than later, because the greatest risk lies in a failure to engage and being left mute in a debate in which your voice must be heard.”