There are endless business articles lauding the value of social media and social business strategies for the modern business, but all too frequently the explanation of the value of social is cased very much in terms of brand awareness and pseudo advertising to lots and lots of eyeballs. In fact, the greatest return on investment in social isn’t in brand-oriented activities at all. It’s in lead generation, and other business optimization.
Brand mentions, followers and likes are, for the most part, pretty meaningless. As several recent experiments have shown, Facebook likes are a profoundly unreliable indicator of business value, and share of voice metrics (on twitter for instance) can also be easily ‘gamed’ (by automated systems) to generate either a higher or lower share of conversation on a subject matter.
But social conversations online are a superb space for identifying new leads for business, as well as negotiating solutions for business problems.
In our work with Bupa Australia we have been able to monitor public conversations on social channels about healthy living and transition phases in the lives of potential customers, and to offer advice when individuals have specifically acknowledged they are looking for help. This activity is not designed to grow followers necessarily, and is not measured by engagement ratio or conversation volume. Instead, it’s measured the old-fashioned way – queries and sales. Social channels in this example are being used as tantamount to a retail shop floor; customers have voluntarily appeared in the space and are interested in conducting their own investigations of goods and services. Responding (delicately and diplomatically) to specific queries is a means of empowering the customer rather than turning them away.
There’s no doubt that this warm-leads approach to social has its risks, and can be executed very poorly indeed. When conducted by a traditional PR or advertising professional, it can come across as too “salesy” – buffeting the potential buyer in sales messages that leave them cold. But where it is executed well, the lead generation opportunities for social are profound. Not only can firms access new audiences, but they can do so in a timely, context-specific fashion.
And Bupa is not alone in this socially driven lead generation strategy. There are now many documented strategies and case studies demonstrating that a carefully constructed monitoring an insights strategy can have a very high return on investment indeed. (See: LinkedIn for Lead Gen case, Twitter Lead Gen Cards, IBM social sharing for lead gen case study.)
Then there’s the use of social for business problem solving. Besides standard customer-service oriented problem solving (which should be obvious, and often is treated more seriously than call centre issue resolution, as it occurs in “public” online spaces), there is the opportunity to use social spaces online for crowdsourcing ideas, product development and testing and documentation of problems and solutions. This is probably the greatest cost-saving mechanism of social sharing. Rather than using closed environments for problem resolution, social channels enable collective problem solving as well as gathering information about service problems in specific geographic locations. This is both more efficient and more accurate than self-reporting.
The collective problem solving tactic has been in evidence in the tech community for years; forums and communities have for a long time been used as bulletin boards for articulation of tech problems, and community members and organizational professionals offer solutions in those spaces. But only recently have firms started to facilitate the same technique in dealing with specific business problems. Get Satisfaction is being used by an increasing range of businesses for customer service-oriented problem solving. And we are seeing a growing range of new social platforms that assist in product development and problem solving (see for instance, Quirky, IdeaVibes, IdeaPod, OpenIDEO, Skibb, among others). These tools are designed to cut the cost of market research and capitalize on expertise in the community (and importantly, outside the firm) on design, manufacture and distribution of tangible products, as well as adaptation and evolution of information goods and services to better meet the needs of any community.
But problem solving and idea sharing platforms have the added benefit of encouraging innovation within an organization. Rather than accepting the top-down hierarchical structure of decision making they can encourage innovation within the firm.
As others have noted, business process innovation has been around for generations, and tends to rise and fall in waves. It will commonly rise in economically straitened times when businesses must focus on cutting operational costs, and in the current market, for all our apparent wealth, the Australian corporate market is seriously looking at cost cutting right now. Rather than focusing on social channels for mere eyeballs and “Likes”, the time is ripe for considering how social business tactics can be used to improve business practice – product development, problem resolution and internal process management. It’s time for the corporate sector to wrest control of digital social strategy back from the marketing department, and to consider how it can be used strategically, rather than for mere show.