2013 - The Year Social Business Got Real, What it Means, What's Next
Just recently I've seen a number of industry discussions that allude to the death of social business, posts about the declining interest in communities, big moves from industry peers who are moving on and conversations about how social marketing is now mostly blended with advertising.

What's happened? Have we lost our way or is the path just rockier than we expected?

Losing Sight of the Relationships

In our haste to successfully apply social tools and scale them, we have almost forgotten about the very thing that is most crucial to our success -- people. It’s easy to see why; it is much easier to figure out the mechanics of a tool and build content that allows you (theoretically) to speak to more people. Tools and content are important, but if you forget to be human and build relationships with the people you connect with, you not only miss the point of the exercise, you risk arresting the huge potential to change economics at scale.

The growing use of social media channels for advertising may be the epitome of this trend. Last year I wrote about the inherent dissonance between Facebook’s revolutionary engagement architecture and its traditional media business model. I also see this with the enterprise social software firms -- they sell their products in the same way enterprise software has always been sold, with huge up front commitments. Both ignore the way value is generated in networks and subvert how organizations approach creating value -- by pushing them to demand success virtually overnight – the dreaded “immediate return on investment.”

Social networks and communities are organic processes rooted in the relationships created between the people in the network. Technology and content might connect people and give them material to build on or collaborate around, but they are no substitute for dialogue, particularly when the topic is complex. The problem for organizations is that relationships take time to develop before they can produce tangible and measurable results. That means that, in essence, you have to invest with the faith that those relationships will yield results but you cannot guarantee when or how results will emerge.

As they say, it’s complicated.

Because it’s complicated we tend to focus on the elements we can control -- the technology and the content. We de-prioritize relationship building as a secondary or side project to be done when there is time because it’s not clear how much is needed or when.

We then find that we never get around to it. We build amazing infrastructure and push out wonderful content only to find that no one is listening because they are already saturated in technology and content. And now we've failed -- at least at demonstrating any real return on the investment we've made -- so we spend our time sharing our content more and more in hopes of getting some likes and shares which will show a degree of marginal success.

Where Does This Leave Us in 2013?

A large part of the market feels like the reality has not lived up to the promise of social business. That is probably true, although my perspective is that those organizations likely approached the execution in the wrong way. Plenty of organizations, however, DO get it. They are approaching the issue in a thoughtful, measured way that acknowledges the complex scope of the change required to fulfill on the promise of social business.

Those organizations that do get it have been hunkered down -- and maybe will be for another few years -- because they are going through the challenge of organizational transformation. Because of the scope and size of the effort, progress comes in lots of small victories before you start to see big wins, an example of which is UBM, which spent years taking small deliberate steps before seeing groundbreaking innovation. Externally (and even for many teams I work with) it can feel like failure, too, if you don’t see the small markers of success that indicate much broader progress.

In reality, big innovations and changes require a lot of tumult and confusion before the new mode of operations becomes normalized and comfortable. Organizational tension increases dramatically before it optimizes. These organizations are in the trough of disillusionment and are coming to terms with what it takes to succeed. In our work with over 90 organizations we have confirmed some hard truths:

  • Go slow to go fast. Inspiring a change in behavior -- which ultimately creates the economic ROI benefits -- requires hand-to-hand combat. You cannot achieve behavior change at scale by trying to get everyone to change at the same time. It is a geometric dynamic, where getting the initial people to change a behavior is hard and expensive, because the behavior is new to the culture and goes against the grain of social acceptance. As more people adopt the behavior change, each new conversion becomes cheaper and faster until you reach saturation.
  • Emotion trumps logic. The more fun and relaxed you make a behavior change, the less resistance you will get and the more voluntary participation. This is hard for many executives to accept in their drive to be logical and efficient, but don’t overlook the value of having a little fun. This continually strikes me as a marker of an organization that has the potential to be successful with social business.
  • Structure must change. HR practices and processes can either be a great accelerator of social business efforts by institutionalizing change, or they can act as a "grass ceiling," limiting how far an emergent change will go because of the extrinsic motivators HR creates for employees that may counteract social business goals.

For all the angst, I am gleefully happy that we have reached this stage of the market because it will serve to separate out those who get it from those that were chasing dreams without realizing their implications. It means we can get down to the hard work of achieving the potential of social business -- organizations that collaborate with employees and customers to build and distribute value. Social business will change the nature of the organization from a program operator to a platform, allowing people to dock in, contribute and be rewarded in the ways that makes the most sense for them as individuals.

Title image courtesy of Florin Stana (Shutterstock) 

Editor's Note: Read more of Rachel's thoughts on social business in To Socialize Organizations, Socialize the Executives