The social media gap is growing into a full-blown chasm. On one side, we have companies that are struggling to get on board, having stalled at the twin road blocks of ROI justification and resourcing.
In the middle, there many businesses that have made solid steps but run the risk of seeing their fledgling communities wither and die under the growing threat of recessionary cuts.
And in the distance, we have organizations that are well on their way to becoming social businesses. They have vibrant, self-supporting owned media communities while experts from many business functions act as ambassadors in earned media networks. Their customers and employees are actively engaged in digital discovery and collaborative service development, and all of this is wrapped up with measurable and meaningful ROI.
But let’s be frank. This is certainly the exception and not the rule. With this ideal in mind, it seems timely to look the trends that are likely to shape social business adoption in 2012 and beyond…
1. The year social grows up
The writing is on the digital (or is that Facebook?) ‘wall’… interactive marketing is here to stay. With analysts predicting spend hitting nearly US$80 billion by 2016, social media and digital are no longer the playthings of pajama-wearing bloggers and tweens. Beneath the headlines, though, there lies another story. Social media is hard. The streets aren’t paved with digital gold. For example, Reuters recently reported that financial advisors are seeing declining benefits from social media. In the same month, The New York Times told us Facebook visits were dropping.
Our client IBM’s Social CRM study highlighted the emerging gap between marketing perception and social consumer reality. It showed that while brand marketers felt consumers came to their social networks to feel brand love, the actually were more interested in receiving coupons, discounts and customer support.
In 2012, brands will increasingly be faced with a series of hard choices. I said in last year’s trends post, that a presence in the big four of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube was becoming a non-negotiable. The hard choices come as they realize that building a thriving community in each is time consuming and – without firm goals in place – possibly pointless.
There is a case for maintaining a minimal presence in one channel – perhaps using it as a bridge to another. For many brands, YouTube isn’t a strong community option – but is undeniably the video sharing leader. In this example, they should focus on other channels to build engagement while directing consumers to their videos – and then back to other, more appropriate channels for conversation or to purchase.
All of becomes more complex as brands need to maintain a watchful eye on emerging channels. Case in point is the much maligned Google+ which is tipped to hit 400 million users by the end of 2012. Are you there yet?
Maturing social consumers will also start modifying their behaviors. Social media overload will see them dropping away from social networks that don’t give them what they need. Those brands that have established social presences should start 2012 by asking their loyal, high-sharing social consumers what they want – and modify accordingly. This is especially important for those that have plateaued, are struggling to attract new followers or are seeing engagement levels dropping. The opportunity for brands in 2012 is for smarter, probably smaller, social networks that are built around tangible social customer needs of the vocal, high sharing minority and measurable business outcomes.
2. The age of social consumer relations management
The days of customers being happy with 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday support are coming to an end. Encouragingly, many brands have responded with social brand media monitoring programs and customer support staff in owned social media channels. While things are on the up, 2011 saw brands such as FedEx, Ocean Marketing and Qantas added to the pantheon of social media fail case studies.
Clearly, we’re not there yet. An October 2011 study from by Conversocial found many retailers failed to respond to complaints in social networks. Secondly from the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ school of customer support, issues have also blown up when attempts at online customer interaction have been judged inappropriate. And we’re also seeing backlash when brands have failed to anticipate the likely online reaction to their social media marketing attempts.
I predict 2012 will see the emergence of social consumer support functions. People with solid expertise in managing and predicting online customer behavior will play a much greater role in all facets of a brand’s online presence. The social media gold rush days are coming to an end. We need experts helping to plan and manage discussions. Surveys have told us people are looking for customer support in social channels, so get your customer support people there. This will force even deeper collaboration between business functions and with external agencies. It will also force jobs to be restructured as social consumer support – with its deeper customer understanding – taking a much more strategic role in business decisions. Begs a question – will PR become a social consumer relations function,
3. Drop the ‘social’ as social business becomes business
McKinsey reports that social technology use is increasingly correlated with operating margin improvements and market share leadership. Great news, especially for those of us who see social business becoming, simply, business in 2012, just as e-commerce became commerce before it.
In 2012, we’ll see a rapid adoption of social technologies changing all facets of business, whether they want to change or not.
The days of a marketing-led social media function are coming to a close. Smart companies are building centers of excellence that are supporting all business functions in a coordinated fashion. They’re also investing in training all employees, realizing that the core demands from social consumers are for subject matter expertise, not the size of someone’s Twitter following, Klout ranking or ability to text 100 words a minute. Text 100 has created an ambitious Digital Certification program where consultants, HR, IT, Finance staff and Office Managers are all tasked with improving their thought leadership, digital consulting skills, community management and training.
Like an increasing number of companies, we’ve realized our social consumers want to interact with us through social channels. In response we’re redesigning our client support, marketing, recruitment and internal communications channels to suit the requirements of our audiences.
The mission for 2012 is for marketers to let go of other business disciplines. Future success won’t be in their ability to interpret what their colleagues in customer service, human resources and so on do and deliver on their behalf. It will be in their ability to partner, coach and ultimately enable these functions.
4. Spokespeople evolved: Executives to experts
A recent GlobalWebIndex report found that B2B decision makers were highly socially engaged and rated conversations with brands on social networks as more influential than webinars, sales presentations, conferences or corporate entertainment. The more complex the decision, the greater the need to ask questions of experts in online communities.
Social consumers who make big decisions want to talk to the right people online. We’ve pushed C-level executives into the spotlight for more than a hundred years – and if they’re the right people to manage these complex online conversations then we need to arm them for the discussion.
We’re increasingly managing Digital Academy training for our clients. These programs help people from customer support, sales, marketing, human resources and so on use social networking channels such as Twitter and LinkedIn to support their business goals. The resulting programs see these experts blogging on corporate websites, managing communities in company discussion forums, and acting as ambassadors in external earned media communities.
Through 2012 and beyond we’ll see people from all business functions playing similar expanded roles in support of their own objectives. This is a logical next step for those companies that have developed owned media properties across Facebook, twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn. Based on our experience, it’s best to start with one business function, division or product and build a program around someone with a greater aptitude for social media. Measure their success – learn from the things that didn’t go well – and evolve the campaign around them.
5. Big data becomes business as usual
IDC’s “2011 Digital Universe Study: Extracting Value from Chaos” told us the world’s information is doubling every two years. Last year saw 1.8 zettabytes created and replicated. That’s a lot of info and while most PR people would run a mile before diving into the data, that’s one fear our profession is going to have to face.
In 2012, marketers will need to use hard metrics to gauge digital and social marketing ROI. We’re entering a tough economic environment where even harder questions are going to be asked of the PR tactics we propose. The time for social media experimentation is waning in the hunt for solid bottom-line results.
The answer increasingly lies in what’s being called ‘big data’. While the definitions are blurred, at its core big data means using a range of data sets including competitive information, online data such as social networking behaviors, offline data and customer information to enable a three dimensional approach to business decisions.
From a PR perspective the emergence of better, easier-to-use more targeted tools combined with geo-location technologies will mean data will play a meaningful role in PR activities. We’ll go beyond reach and “participation” measures such as likes and retweets and instead derive action-oriented insights from our metrics.
Big data will also help us understand the individuals we’re influencing so we can create more targeted strategies. And if this still makes you want to run a mile, 2012 will also see a rise in specialist data analysts who will increasingly play a role in shaping communications decisions.