Social media has completely transformed the way we shop, relax, look for jobs, pursue our hobbies and reconnect with old friends and acquaintances. Why hasn't this translated to business?

Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, LinkedIn and Google+ have never been more popular with consumers. According to Nielson's 2011 Social Media Report, social networks and blogs now account for nearly a quarter of the time spent online. Facebook alone reports over 800 million active users. If Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest in the world!

Marketers and big brands have also embraced social media as a way to reach a broader, more connected audience. Yet despite its exploding consumer popularity, many businesses are not doing enough to leverage it as a tool for connecting with customers, driving conversations around content, and extending their brands online.

While virtually all corporate web properties today incorporate some kind of social media -- ranging from just a link, to a corporate Facebook page, to incorporating social tools like commenting, rating, polls and forums -- many shy away from true, one-to-one social interaction with their customers. And even fewer have the technologies in place to meet the growing and evolving demand for online interaction, provide effective measurement of their social media investments, or actively leverage the results of these social interactions to drive new business online.

Research performed last year by eMarketer found that 80% of companies with at least 100 employees expected to use social networks for marketing in 2011. Yet marketing research firm Penn Schoen Berland, revealed that only 27% of companies listed social media as a top strategic priority, and 19% said that having a social strategy was not necessary at all. This leads us to wonder why more businesses aren’t truly social businesses.

Social Business Obstacles

The reasons for this are complex. Many companies are interested in doing more with social media but have struggled to overcome a range of obstacles including:

  • Fear of losing control over their brand image and the difficulties of social moderation
  • Developing and establishing an authentic social media business culture
  • Confusion about the right tools for integrating, managing and delivering social content
  • Lack of appropriate resources and expertise
  • Challenges of defining ROI for social initiatives or determining success measures

These are tough challenges to overcome. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that social media of any kind operates best as a “bottom-up” rather than a “top-down” activity. This makes it hard to control.

In addition, social media relies on a critical mass of participants to generate the network effects that are needed to ensure their viability and ongoing value to participants. This makes it difficult for companies to predict the success of their social initiatives.

You can’t force your customers to interact with you, nor can you control what they will say. But you can effectively direct and moderate the conversation and leverage the content that gets produced.

Social Business Strategy

Companies that have successfully deployed social media initiatives have done so by applying a few basic principles, which include the following:

  1. Establish a culture of accessibility: Social media is only secondarily about technology. It isn’t sustainable unless there is an ethos of openness and accessibility already established within an organization. This can’t be forced, but it can be cultivated. A necessary first step is to understand how your customers already communicate with your company and use this as the starting point.
  2. Build critical mass: Social media gains its power from network effects. As a result, the true value of your efforts can only be realized when a large number of users are engaged. Once a customer-facing social media initiative has shown potential and started to take off, its growth should be encouraged by providing incentives and/or rewards for participation, while adapting as their needs evolve.
  3. Invest in effective content moderation: Even though it’s essential to generate sufficient network effects, don’t become too fixated on usage statistics as your primary goal. Not all social activity is equally useful or productive. Although it’s essential to encourage open and interactive conversations online, marketers have an obligation to actively address content that is potentially libelous or damaging to their brand. Investments in staff and social media tools that allow them to effectively moderate content are a necessity.
  4. Identify and reuse the best content: Social content is of limited use if you’re unable to identify and leverage the most helpful social content, as successful companies will need to find a way to use their social media gold for numerous purposes. These could include:
    • Improving the relevance of online assets
    • Reuse of comments for PR or product enhancements
    • Identifying new products or discontinuing others
    • Early intervention in potentially damaging customer experiences
    • Monitoring market perception
    • Discovering competitive information
    By combining your social business applications with discovery tools, you will be able to find, highlight and repurpose the best and most useful content your customers create.
  5. Plan for growth with appropriate technologies: As the amount of social activity grows, maintaining optimal performance of your Web properties can be a major challenge. Most social media repositories are built on legacy SQL databases that are great for viewing content but are unresponsive to large numbers of content contributors and unexpected traffic peaks. Leading social media players like Facebook and Twitter have addressed this challenge by deploying NoSQL technologies to handle the exploding demand for social interaction. As social media continues to grow, all companies will be forced to adopt similar architectures that not only scale and ensure optimum performance, but are also cost-effective and easier to manage.

No one can guarantee that companies that embrace these principles will hit a social business home run right off the bat. In fact, the single most important quality of any truly successful social business is patience. However for those who are willing to stay the course and adapt a well-thought out plan, the results can be dramatic – potentially resulting in better and more successful products, faster market penetration, satisfied and loyal customers and increased margins.

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in reading: