Rethinking the Future of Business Part 1: The State of Corporate Social Media

Whether you know it or not, the path that social media follows within the organization is in your hands. But as we’re learning, mastery of the latest social tools does not guarantee a place in the ranks of upper management let alone a place on the team period. The role of the social media champion is not timeless; in fact, the days of its designation are numbered. However, your role and the role of new media in your organization is developing as we go. Organizations need leaders right now.

If you’re a leader, your tenure is defined by the decisions and actions you make now. Said simply, the role of a leader is earned today and over time. If you’re a strategist or champion, the question is, what will your position look like tomorrow and what can you do to shape its direction?

This is a time for change…and change needs change agents and decision makers.

But, dabbling in social media through the siloes of marketing, service, or communications is important, but it isn’t nearly enough to introduce the roadmap to produce internal and external transformation.  The reality is that social media engagement opens the doors to new touchpoints that usually extend beyond the campaign or program operator. For example, if marketing runs a contest, customers may also use the platform to voice concerns requiring a response from customer service…but campaigns are rarely integrated and thus risk failure.

As part of his report,”Career Path of the Corporate Social Media Strategist,” Altimeter Group’s Jeremiah Owyang surveyed 140 Corporate Social Strategists to surface details on existing social media programs. Reviewing the existing infrastructure and programs currently in play at some of the biggest and most often cited companies helps us understand where we are and also where we need to go. In part one of this discussion, we’ll look at the state of social media within business.

It might surprise you that the official lifespan of social media at many organizations is only between 1-2 years (<40%) and under 1 year (~30%).  Roughly 20% appear to run social programs for the last 2-3 years. Historically, most businesses are slow to embrace innovation and change. Owyang’s report found that ~10% of the companies he interviewed claim to have led social programs for the past 3-4 years with an additional ~5% claiming social existed between 4-5 years and more than 5 years respectively.

In 2010, 40% of budget allocation toward social media ranged between $100,000 – 500,000. Less than 10% invested between $500k to $1 million, $1mm to $5mm, and greater than $5mm respectively. The lion’s share of budget seemed to dwell in the $10,000 to 100,000 range which is borderline peripheral.

To say that I was amazed would be an understatement. 50% of businesses declare their organization to possess a “formalized” level of social media maturity. Another 20% claim a mature infrastructure.  At least 20-30% of respondents admitted to a stage of experimentation. Obviously the sample that Altimeter Group polled for this report does not reflect the average organization. And I’d argue that the following findings do not align with social media’s true path toward the complete socialization of business – the integration of collaborative extensions to existing business units and processes.

When businesses assert a formalized or mature social media foundation, what I believe they’re saying is that we’re convinced that social is critical and that we have integrated siloed programs within the organization. Within those silos, social experimentation has most likely matured. But to claim goals, outcomes, desired performance levels or collaboration is mature is a great fallacy. These “mature” programs are usually bolt-on and exist within service, marketing, or communications, but rarely are they communicating across the organization. And herein lies one of the greatest challenges facing businesses in 2011 and 2012. It’s time for a bit of culture shock.

Case in point. Almost 50% of participating companies in this study house social media in marketing. Another 30-40% place social in corporate communications. These two groups represent both the majority and potential confinement. In most cases the above list in addition to those not accounted for, do not truly work together in most businesses. Yet, each one of these divisions in addition to sales, HR, finance, et al, will at some point require a social approach. In my experience, as these divisions have added interactive processes to the mix, they have either done so without the knowledge of other more experienced divisions or they have demanded the centralization of a new media organization to help lead the way. Without a centralized hub helping the business to become more social, we risk brand integrity, dilution, and also market confusion. This is why Engage is so thick…social media’s impact on business is enterprise or company wide.

The Progress of Progress: When Many Equal One

The time for greater understanding and leadership is upon us. We must think holistically and how officially introducing the 5th P (people) in to the mix calls for new processes, systems as well as perspective and direction. This isn’t supposed to be easy…one Fortune 500 company that I’m working with turned into a 3+ year adventure in which we redesigned (ing) the management and execution infrastructure. It’s been both tremendous and arduous. But I realized that in order to inspire “open leaders,” they need a little help…and it doesn’t necessarily unfold because executives suddenly realize the potential of social media. It happens because they can see the benefits of how collaboration and listening along with other variables starts to impact the bigger picture and the bottom line.

My focus over the last several years and also in the time to come, is aimed squarely at the C-suite and middle management. I spend most of my time now with executives (not the c-level at first, but those who report to them), who realize the opportunities, risks, and understand how to work the political machine to get things in motion. It’s a combination of change management and organizational transformation, but it’s also propelled by playing the game internally…all rooted in experimentation and the presentation of progress.

It’s not enough to get social presences online, recruit mommy bloggers, launch new badge programs or specials on Foursquare or to activate influencer programs. We need structure, organization, guidelines, direction, and meaningful collaboration across the enterprise. As a result, new media change agents and those who work with them start to bump up against the roles that management consultancies such as McKinsey address. But even the most progressive management consultancies are struggling with drafting the blueprint for the future of business.

The democratization of media triggered the equalization of influence. Consumers are empowered and as a result, they demand a more engaging experience. Businesses must now add a human touch in order to not only earn relevance, but also build a vibrant and influential community. This will take time and will force us to rethink everything including behavior, structure, and vision as well as how we approach social today. The truth is that social media isn’t forcing this complete (r)evolution, it was simply the latest catalyst to prompt an overdue domino effect to create a true customer-centric organization.

This is your time…

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  • Mark Quinn

    Great post Brian. I work for a 127 year old multi national, multi billion dollar company that has not engaged social media on a corporate level. Your comments inspired me to figure out the entry point for us company wide. Different business units are dipping their toe in the water but we don’t have a good overall strategy. For our guys it is going to be really tough for them to grasp it all as social media has so many levels and is so dynamic. I am going for some small wins to build up to a larger initiative. Thanks for the insight.

    • briansolis

      Well done Mark. That’s how it starts. Small wins to demonstrate opportunity. Go get em…

  • Eric Melin

    Redesigning corporate infrastructure is never going to be easy. The marketing and communications departments have gotten the brunt of the social media responsibility because they seem the most natural fit right now. Developing a culture of information sharing wihin a company is a real challenge and it will be interesting to see whether management consultancies lead the way or hinder the process. Great post as usual, Brian!

    Eric Melin

    • briansolis

      Eric, indeed. Any company currently undergoing any aspect of change management should use this as an opportunity to revisit a customer-centric approach. But I’m not sure that leaders are looking for that solution…instead it’s all about operationalizing the business to promote efficiency and perhaps employee morale as well.

  • Invisibleinkdigital

    I think slow incremental change is the order of the day for large corporates late in the game of applying a formalised social media strategy. I agree there is scope for a leader to step into the corporate social media space and bring clarity to confusion. I read Jeremiah’s report and it’s evidently clear from the sample data provided that someone needs to be comfortable engaging with all lines of business if a holistic approach is to be adopted.

    Jeremiah highlighted the need for that person to manage growing internal demand, navigate an ever changing technology space, measure ROI/ROE, deal with a lack of resources and finally deal with a resistant internal culture.

    Failing to mitigate those risks is a fast track way of the role being reduced to one that is purely reactionary and non effictive

    • briansolis

      I think the report exemplifies two things, growing importance and also a growing distraction away from the real objectives…adapting business to the real world needs of connected consumers and customers overall. I’m currently working with a company that has over 200,000 employees around the world. I was originally brought in to help with a handful of creative strategies. While it would have been wonderful to lead those programs, we instead decided to postpone all social and create a “day zero” approach to build a framework for collaboration so that social programs and affected departments cold collaborate internally and externally. While it’s not how every company is approaching this, it is how we will do it right in this case from day one.

  • BitShare

    Great post – social media is still in it’s infancy globally and since corporate america is traditional, adopting a new way of communication (which by many is seen as a fad [i don’t agree]) will take time to become common place in corporations. It’s up to us to push this level of communication with our customers for the best customer satisfaction possible and also use it as a tool for the corporation to get its brand out to the public.

  • Social Assistant

    I once worked for a local business that absolutely refused to get involved in social media because they were ‘old school’. Which basically meant they didn’t understand it. They had an email list, but refused to go beyond that, thinking that social media was just a hassle. Their business has slowed over the years and I know for a fact they would get more business and interaction if they used social media.

    I even tested it out to try to prove to them, and I got a huge response, but was quickly shut down because they were frightened of change.

    It won’t be easy for corporations…but they’ll get there. I just hope they get there soon.

    Thanks for the post!

  • Social Assistant

    I once worked for a local business that absolutely refused to get involved in social media because they were ‘old school’. Which basically meant they didn’t understand it. They had an email list, but refused to go beyond that, thinking that social media was just a hassle. Their business has slowed over the years and I know for a fact they would get more business and interaction if they used social media.

    I even tested it out to try to prove to them, and I got a huge response, but was quickly shut down because they were frightened of change.

    It won’t be easy for corporations…but they’ll get there. I just hope they get there soon.

    Thanks for the post!

  • robingandhi

    Thanks for the post, Brian. Completely agree with the notion that social media today is not being internalized within business operations and strategy as it should be. I’m finding too many clients who think that social media engagement across micro-media is the way to define a social media strategy… and essentially close the book on social media. At least, that’s what’s easy, so I guess it makes sense.

    Here’s a question for you: if you do a baseline listening assessment, and come up relatively empty on true insights and conversations that can drive business goals from the current set of conversations, what would you suggest that an organization do?

    1. Be prepared, wait and revisit in a few months or
    2. Demonstrate leadership and develop assets internally and externally that embrace social technologies to meet and cultivate future conversations.

    I think it’s easy to ask companies to do the latter, but the argument for it is not always obvious. What do you think?

    • briansolis

      I have in fact recommended #1 on many occasions. Many times, the opportunity cost is far too great to ignore, even if temporary.

  • Hughes PR

    And along with social media, I think website management should be incorporated into the same ‘department’. Or should it just be all digital so there is a holistic approach to social, website, and any other electronic communication? At my last workplace, our digital/web team was part of marketing and we said 7 years ago it should be its own department separate from marketing. Guess what, it still isn’t.

  • Hughes PR

    And along with social media, I think website management should be incorporated into the same ‘department’. Or should it just be all digital so there is a holistic approach to social, website, and any other electronic communication? At my last workplace, our digital/web team was part of marketing and we said 7 years ago it should be its own department separate from marketing. Guess what, it still isn’t.

  • Menisa Lindra

    hi Brian…. I am an owner of a small company and just started it few years back… but we are not making use of social media marketing for any purpose in our company.. but after reading your blog I think this kind of marketing can really help us in our business in lots of different ways including business development, clients and many other ways.. thanks dear for this post.

  • Niels Langereis

    Again a great post Brian! Even though your have to balance constantly on the edge of ‘Hard Research’ and ‘Future Visions’ when talking about the Social Media industry, you manage to create a well constructed and broadly based theory. Being a Social Media Strategy consultant myself it is great to have some hard numbers in hand and a widely publicized like-minded-spirit when confronting stuck in 80’s managers.

    I agree with you that Social Media should not only be placed under one or two department/divisions (such as Marketing and PR) as most businesses do. It should indeed be integrated in all departments, so every department could benefit. But convincing companies to do this is the hard part. I found that it is really though to convince a company to invest money in a business changing theory and technique they do not themselves understand completely. And although I can convince most of them to read you book ‘Engage’, it stays though.

    When you talk about a ‘centralized hub’ are you convinced that there should be a Social Media department or division created, from which all Social Media channels can be directed? Or is this what you mean when you are talking about change agents and management consultancies? I think all of the mentioned problems could be covered by a Social Media Strategist (or Communication strategy company). He or she could serve as a guide for all the departments who will start to use Social Media. By which I see introducing Social Media into different divisions and departments as something temporary, because the project path ends when the workers have accepted it as an integral part of their work description.

    Of course there is also a permanent position available for this named strategist or Strategy Company when talking about the necessity for Social Media guidance, but then I am talking about the creation, evaluating and adjusting of a Social Media strategy. What do you think?

    Cheers, @nclangereis

  • Nichewebserver

    I perfectly agree with you when you say that consumers” demand a more engaging experience” thus the need for a more structured engagement of social media within an organization. That while , currently, it’s engagement is more in Marketing and corporate Communication, it must somehow reach Product management and even up till Finance management.

    My dilemma, at this point, however is…different departments in an organization is structured in such a way as to maintain balance in an organization. That while there is a need to add a “human touch’ to keep it”relevant” and with a huge fan base, there is also the need to keep the bottomline positive. If we are to tip the whole organization towards consumers needs and wants…are we not also giving away much needed profit to keep the organization running?

  • Sacha

    Great post. Nowadays, businesses that choose not to participate in social media (no matter how big or small) are those that will find themselves left in the dust. It’s important to make your brand a recognizable one – one that gets customers excited. One of the most fundamental aspects of being part of social networks is knowing when customers post a bad review about you or your company and having the opportunity to rectify the situation immediately. Additionally, social media allows you to generate leads and as a result those leads (who consequently become your satisfied customers!) will send you plenty of referrals.

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    This is a superb piece – lots of food for thought there. I work for a pretty new IT-based company where things are fluid – and I’m trying to get some of these factors incorporated into our approach. And hopefully we’ll get things moving in the right way… but thanks again.

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  • Maxi Garcia

    Consumers are empowered..and they know it. (period) If you want them to take your company into consideration, try to find the gap where you can start being relevant for them, providing value added emotional experiences. At the same time, support your efforts with excellent customer service, sales, PR and more, on a social environment. Let them know where to go to make their complaint, congratulation, service/product request, and be there with a fast solution for them. What has changed is the environment, from product/service centric to customer centric. Company managers haven’t figured out how to make things happen the other way around. They have to recognize that they can’t control their brand anymore, and that in the fight to try to do it, they are missing the great opportunity that social media provides them to grow fast, build trust and generate more leads and loyalty than ever before.

    Great post Brian, I’ll read part 2 tomorrow morning. :)

  • Anonymous

    You are describing my experience, there … Only thing I would add, it is a people-centric organization (going beyond only customer-centric), as customer is only one of the social roles of an individual

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  • Stephanie Greenall

    As a person who has grown up with a life of social media integration, I see the relevance and reach that social media offers organizations. Unfortunately, I have worked for organizations who not only refuse to use, but ban social media in the workplace. I understand that government funded organizations can be hesitant about using these tools but the Government uses them and so should they. I have heard a multitude of excuses including, it’s just another way PR agencies are scrounging for money or the fear that their message will be manipulated. As an social media exercise, I searched for my organization on Twitter and found multiple tweets. After showing management, I thought it might inspire them to use social media to help control and maintain reputation, but instead it may have invited more fear. One of my colleagues blamed our lack of web 2.0 initiatives on funding, but last time I checked twitter and Facebook were free. If its the cost of monitoring these outlets…throw an intern on the job (much like myself)! I have seen social media work wonders for organizations in the past couple of years. And I wish the best for the organizations who ban it and refuse to use a wonderful tool that can help manage and reinforce their brand.

  • DDeGabrielleVisibleTech

    Thanks for this great post, Brian. As you point out, customers are empowered like never before – 2011 will undoubtedly be the year that business and customers meet as equals. Social media success in this new landscape, however, requires being a social company at enterprise scale; its true power lies in the ability to help companies improve the performance of every customer touch point. To fully realize this opportunity, social ‘champions and game changers’ out there first need to realize there are partners ready to help them find ways to take personalized, cross-departmental approaches to Social Intelligence. Ultimately, those companies who have integrated social media across silos will have the unique ability to learn, test, refine and continuously improve their businesses to better serve their customers.

    Debbie DeGabrielle
    CMO, Visible Technologies


Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. More so, he humanizes technology’s causal effect to help people see people differently and understand what to do about it. He is an award-winning author and avid keynote speaker who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation and innovation.

Brian has authored several best-selling books including What’s the Future of Business (WTF), Engage! and The End of Business as Usual. His blog,, is ranked as a leading resource for insights into the future of business, new technology and marketing.

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