5 Minutes with Vala Afshar

Ask three marketing executives to define "social business" and you'll get three different views.

One may see the potential of using the big data of social media to enhance the customer experience. Another explains how collaborative social tools like Yammer enhance productivity. Some may see social business as a way to enhance brand. And they all may be right in the context of their own experience.

One thing upon which they would probably all agree upon is that we're just beginning to understand social business. To help shed light on the topic, we contacted Vala Afshar, co-author of The Pursuit of Social Business Success.

Promoting Socially Savvy Companies

Afshar is also CMO of Extreme Networks, responsible for brand awareness, demand generation, investor relations and, of course, social media. As you'll see, he's a strong evangelist for social media and writes often on the subject for publications like The Economist, Forbes and CMSWire.

Murphy: Is social business gaining traction in the workplace?

Afshar: Social is everywhere. People expect to be connected no matter where they are – whether it’s at home, work or a ballgame. The No. 1 use of the web is social networks and the No. 1 access method is mobile. It’s been shown that 94 percent of customers believe C-level social involvement is important. Meanwhile, 82 percent of employees trust a company with social leaders. There is an inherent trust factor that is established when someone connects with a socially savvy company. They are treated as more than a customer and the company is perceived as much more than a vendor.

When I connect to a customer on social that becomes the default mode of communication for me, and it is becoming that way for many in our industry. This is evident from the recent publication of the top 100 Social CIOs on Twitter, who have an average of 3,330 followers and are listed on average 150 times. However, as John Hagel, the co-chair of Deloitte's Center for the Edge, said, digital has “a delicious paradox,” as the very same technologies that bring awesome opportunities and new possibilities, at same time bring mounting performance pressures, accelerating change and growing uncertainty. But, in the end, I believe you are either a digital business or a dead business.

Murphy: As you’ve noted recently, only about 5 percent of the data out there is being tapped. How quickly do you see that rate rising in the next year, five years or 10 years?

Afshar: Big data is a huge opportunity for companies. Ninety percent of all the data in the world has been generated over the last two years. And that trend is only increasing. According to CSC, it is expected that there will be 4300 percent increase in annual big data generation by 2020. Companies that are able to correlate and analyze this data explosion are poised to be the big beneficiaries of this trend. Gartner recently introduced the concept of a "business moment," which is when companies are able to instantly analyze data and react. This requires a very lean and agile process.

Oreo was a great example of this at the Super Bowl two years ago, when the company capitalized on the blackout at the game. Within minutes of the lights going out, Oreo sent out a tweet  that said, “No Lights? No problem. You can still dunk in the dark,” with a picture of an Oreo cookie. This single message became an instant social media success and speaks to the power of capturing a moment. Organizations such as the NFL are also working to delight fans with the use of real time data analysis, capturing feedback on fan behavior at games, such as this year’s Super Bowl, to improve the fan experience with an immersive digital experience. 

Murphy: It seems like every year is the year of some technology -- social, cloud, customer, etc.  How do you think 2014 will be remembered?

Afshar: 2014 is poised to be the year of wearable technology, incorporating the megatrends of mobile, social, cloud and applications all in one. Google Glass has become a game changer, making its way into even sporting arenas to give fans unique views into the game. Wearable tech will go far beyond entertainment, though, and become a critical part of healthcare and personal fitness, helping doctors and nurses facilitate care and receive real-time feedback on patient health status. 

Healthcare will set the tone for wearable technology, but we can expect it to trickle into other industries, whether it is manufacturing, education or retail. The possibilities are nearly as limitless as our imagination and it will be very exciting to see where this trend takes us.

Murphy: Extreme Networks, like several other large companies, offers products to improve experience and engagement.  Expectations are enormous, but is the innovation too far ahead of adoption at this point?

Afshar: We are entering into a period of what we are calling the Experience Economy. Over the past several years, we have seen the evolution from the mobile and application economy, to one that is now based on the user experience. Ultimately we want to share our experiences wherever we go, and this is driven by our mobility and the applications running on our devices. The mobile user doesn’t care what network is behind the scenes, they only want to be able to download a video on-demand, post a picture to their Instagram account or send out a Vine video of their experience at an event. If any of these activities are impeded by a slow connection, that experience is ruined.  

It is up to IT to ensure that experience is as good as it can be. And the technology is available today to ensure a great experience – whether it is high-density Wi-Fi, application analytics or high performance back-end infrastructure. It comes down to being fast, simple and smart. Customers expect fast support and service. They want products which are smart and of a high quality. And they also want something which is simple to use and intuitive.

Murphy: Do today’s marketers have the skills needed to make the most of the technologies now at their disposal?

Afshar: Today’s marketers are becoming equal parts branding experts and data scientists. One cannot exist without the other and it’s critical that today’s CMO work to develop the analytical capabilities within the marketing team. The marketing team as a whole needs to be comfortable with managing those numbers, knowing what to optimize and what questions to ask, in order to better understand their customer. The technology for marketing is changing and marketers can benefit from working closely with top notch CIOs and IT departments

These technologies include all the elements of digital transformation, many of which did not exist 10 years ago. To make the most of available technologies, marketers need a strong understanding not just of mobile, social, applications and big data, but also web analytics, agile marketing, gamification and digital journalism. The emerging role of chief digital officer is also changing the game, introducing a new role with one foot in marketing and the other in IT.  Per IDC, more than 50 percent of marketing spend in two years will be digital marketing, so it is imperative that marketers become technically savvy and develop collaborative relationships across business units.