As chronicled in marketing budget reports that have been shared in MENG meetings over the years, most line items in marketingCS CMO Guide.JPG budgets have been shrinking at many brands with the notable exceptions of email marketing and social media.  Social media has seen a prolonged adolescence characterized by promise and hope but little substance from a “mature” business point of view.  As I have long argued, social-media-as-content-channel will continue to lose relevance:  its novelty has largely dissipated, and backlash against brands that try to “get personal” is increasing because brands come across as insincere.  People see that they just want to promote themselves, and promotion increasingly turns off stakeholders. CMOs who perceive the need to transform how they relate to stakeholders/customers will need to think carefully before choosing advisory firms.  As discussed at length in CSRA’s Advisory and Service Firm Social Business Adoption research, very few advisory firms fully grasp the depth of change in stakeholder attitudes, nor how to relate to them using social technologies, nor how to advise brands on how to transform their relationships, practices, and organizations.  We’ll tackle that here.

Business Is Personal

Social technologies are personalizing business in general, but brands and industries have distinct cultures and are adopting the personalization trend at different speeds.  CMOs need to assess the sense of urgency to invest time and funds appropriately.

Businesses in all categories are becoming personal because people are using social technologies and relating to each other en masse.  They share joys, frustrations, and hopes about every conceivable situation, including those in which they use your product or service.  Prior to social technologies, people were not accustomed to requesting and giving opinions and experiences on using products and services at scale.  However, now people increasingly expect to find other people’s opinions about every product and service.  The fact is that people communicating with other people is profoundly changing expectations.  People are personal.  In comparison, brands increasingly sound insincere and craven.  People listen to them less, and their relevance falls.

CMOs that understand this shift have a rare opportunity to change how they relate to customers and other stakeholders, become relevant on a personal level and increase profits.  If you think about it, this is quite a complex undertaking because it means transforming the brand relationship with stakeholders as well as the communications and interactions that reflect the change in relationship. Transformation requires new competencies in advisory firms as well.

How to Transform While Running Your Current Business

Here is a broad three part framework to the transformation process.

Assess Stakeholder Behavior

  • Analyze your stakeholders’ participation in digital social venues; adoption varies significantly with industry and types of stakeholders.
  • Conduct an in-depth study of stakeholder behavior and measure the change over time.  Baseline it going back four or five years, and measure the change in stakeholder behavior annually since then.
  • Note the types of conversations stakeholders are having, the situations they are in, and what their frustrations and aspirations are.
  • Develop a strategy for participating in these conversations.  Assess your organization’s resources (knowledge, expertise) and organize how you can share knowledge with stakeholders efficiently. This will require simple business process design.
  • Analyze how competitors and substitutes are involved; learn from early adopters.  If there is minimal activity in your industry, look in other product/service categories that involve your stakeholders in similar social contexts.

Test Interactions

  • Put your strategy to the test and begin interacting.  In most cases, actively seek to nurture conversations among people in the venue so that you do not dominate.  Unless you are on your own venue, you will drive people away if your presence is too strong.
  • Plan for a learning process in which you develop your style for “being personal.”  A business being personal is different from a person being personal.  Digital social venues make this easier because interactions are easy to capture, analyze, and measure.
  • Develop models for measuring stakeholder attitude changes as a function of your team’s interactions with them.  You want to measure changing trust and intimacy. Here is one model.
  • Learn and adjust your approach through several pilots and repeat your analyses (under “Assess”) to measure stakeholder, competitor, and substitute activity outside of your pilots.
  • The process outlined here, when pursued with rigor, will net you a comprehensive understanding of stakeholders’ adoption over time as well as their willingness to interact with others and you.  I don’t suggest planning a transformation process until you have a firm understanding of stakeholder adoption.
  • Assess and Test phases will take most brands six to twelve months, depending on how vigorously they pursue it and how well they diligently create and execute their strategies.

Transform Your Relationships and Organization

  • Your interactions with stakeholders will automatically begin to evolve as you interact with them online.  Moreover, your team(s) will experience change that may seem abstract until you see it.  I have seen significant client-stakeholder transformation in client work; your team will see that marketing’s legacy impulse to “make everything positive” is no longer necessary because stakeholders reward them for their “realness” and helpfulness.
  • Once you see predictable outcomes, you will want to reevaluate your interactions at the brand level, which will affect legacy marketing communications, promotions, advertising, ecommerce, and other parts of the marketing mix.  This is where transformation begins in earnest.
  • Plan for some fear and resistance in team members who feel less comfortable with the increased transparency that the new messaging will require (being “real,” not “positive”).  Your online interactions with stakeholders will give you extensive insight into how to do this in other areas because you will have seen how they respond to various interactions.  Depending on your relationships with them, you could even ask their opinions on various messaging elements.

Choosing an Advisory Firm

  • As the reports on six types of advisory firms detail, each type of firm has various strengths that are relevant to different parts of the Social Business Life Cycle.  For example, strategy and Big Four firms are strong in Feasibility but weak in certain aspects of Strategy and Pilot.  Social business pure plays have the highest average scores in Pilot and, possibly, Scale.  Strategy, Big Four and enterprise I.T. firms are your best bets for Integrate.  Integrate refers to the Transform phase above.
  • Categories of advisory firms are useful because they are based on firms’ DNA, their core competencies, how they monetize their expertise, and their attitudes toward social business transformation (some firms experience more opportunity, others more threats).  For example, marketing/PR firms and advertising agencies will experience extensive threats due to the shift away from social media, toward social business.  Pure plays are obviously focused on opportunity. Enterprise I.T. has huge product and service businesses, so their point of view often revolves around their products.
  • All this said, the team is usually more relevant than the firm, but teams do reflect their firms’ DNA.  The most important and rare competency is hands-on experience with interacting in public to serve people, to solve their problems, and to support their endeavors.  Very few advisors show their professionals’ abilities in interacting, being “real,” online—except pure plays.  When the firm proposes a team, evaluate their individual interactions online.
  • Sociality and being “real” are the differentiators in social business.  Therefore, look for individuals, regardless of the logos on their business cards, because early adopters that practice and have explicit knowledge of sociality are your best leaders.  Look at their blog posts:  does a healthy portion deal with humanness, relationships, trust and sociality?  Promotion is a small part of being human; don’t be seduced by clever wittiness.
  • When evaluating teams, keep in mind that social business focuses on interacting in order to increase trust and develop relationships with stakeholders.  It is significantly different from social media, which largely promotes.  Stakeholders have long tired of being sold to.  Don’t evaluate your teams on their social media interactions.