Plenty of books have already been written about the nature of social business and what brands need to do in order to prepare.
While these have all been groundbreaking books in their own right, we began to realize that some very powerful success stories were beginning to emerge from companies that had already grabbed the social bull by its horns, so to speak, turning cutting-edge business theory into everyday realities for their countless thousands of employees.
These brands’ stories needed to be told. That’s why I, along with Blue Focus Marketing co-founder Mark Burgess, wrote “The Social Employee: How Great Companies Make Social Media Work – Success Lessons from IBM, AT&T, Dell, Cisco, Adobe, Southwest Airlines, and Acxiom,” which examines the day-to-day experiences of employees working within social businesses. The book will be released in August by McGraw-Hill.
Through our extensive research and interviews, the concept we kept returning to was that all of the latest tools in the world wouldn’t do a thing for a company’s bottom line if that company didn’t first focus on improving culture by establishing a shared sense of mission, vision, and values.
The next evolution for businesses, then, isn’t about adopting new tech. It’s about being human.
Dare To Be Disruptive
To borrow a well-worn phrase, brands that put all of their energy into tech adoption tend to mistake the forest for the trees. While new tools can increase productivity, organization, and transparency, these tools mean nothing if the organization’s employees don’t have the practical knowledge and experience to use them.
As a result, brands must learn to become champions of disruptive innovation. This means building an organizational structure that trains employees not simply on how to use software, but on how to understand the underlying philosophies of those programs and what they mean to the business.
According to Cory Edwards, Dell’s Director, Social Media & Corporate Reputation, this meant designing the company’s program around the people rather than revenue. “For us, it was about embedding social media into the fabric of the company and really empowering the employees to connect directly with customers,” he said. “Starting with that authenticity has allowed us to build a successful program.”
As we discovered during our research, the most successful brands empower their employees to keep learning—and to share that new knowledge with the company. Brands that have incorporated disruption into the fabric of their culture will produce employees who have the tools to examine changes in the industry, forecast what they could mean for the business, and learn to incorporate those changes into their collaborative culture.
The process of disruptive innovation helps to contribute to a culture where good ideas are readily shared and rewarded. Individual skills, training, or knowledge are put to better use in a networked system. As John Kennedy, IBM’s Vice President, Corporate Marketing, notes, these processes allow a brand to “deliver on the expectation of the character, culture, and brand. A brand’s employees have expertise in a wide variety of functions, and so companies need to see social media as a platform that makes that expertise more accessible to the world.”
The New Change Is Employee Branding
As we explain in our book, if a brand cannot communicate internally, then it cannot communicate externally. Skilled social employees act as brand ambassadors through their social channels. To ensure it is sending out a unified brand message through its employee channels, companies must establish a strong framework of communication in-house before ever reaching out to the public.
“This goes back to managing the brand from the inside out,” said Dana Williams, Southwest Airlines’ Director, Integrated Marketing and Communications. “We’ve got to take care of our employees first so they can take care of their customers and tell them what’s going on.”
All of this prepares workers for a reality that is already fast upon us: Your employee is your brand. Whether a brand is B2B or B2C makes little difference. Prospects and consumers are increasingly taking to social channels to learn about brands, engage with them, and share their experiences with peers. They’re looking for a human interaction to characterize their experience; if they don’t get it, they’re likely to go somewhere else. This simple fact makes social everyone’s job.
“Social provides a direct interaction with customers on a scale never before possible,” said Maria Poveromo, Senior Director, AR, PR, and Social Media at Adobe (CMO.com’s corporate parent). “Now every employee, regardless of how far removed they are from direct interactions, has the opportunity and ability to understand the impact they and the business are having on customers.”
Vala Afshar, CMO and Chief Customer Officer at Enterasys, echoes this sentiment: “Perhaps in the past, only frontline employees in sales and services were best-suited to represent the company brand, but with the advent and growth of social media, any employee has the opportunity to be seen or heard.”
With this new impetus on employee branding, companies must ensure that they have established a concrete set of mission, vision, and values that employees can identify with. This strong cultural foundation, coupled with training in social collaboration and transparency, will transform a brand’s workforce into a group of engaged social employees.
To work, of course, this process requires a concerted effort by employees at all levels of a company. As David Edelman, McKinsey & Company’s Global Co-Leader, Digital Marketing and Sales Practice, put it: “It takes an enterprise, with thoughtful cultivation of employees, fast feedback processes, content supply, and an overall strategy for how to engage across the decision journey, to make it work.”
Social media has produced a savvy public that expects a certain degree of authenticity out of their interactions with brands. Employees expect this in the workplace too, and they will be looking to the C-suite to set the tone as brands continue their paradigm shift. The employee, in other words, demands a social executive--someone to embrace the march toward social business and lead by example.
One executive who embodies this philosophy is Tim Suther, CMO at Acxiom. Suther’s social leadership style has earned him “Top 2012 CMOs” accolades by ExecRank and a spot in the 2012 #Nifty50 Awards, a joint venture between Blue Focus Marketing and Webbiquity.com. According to Suther, “Executive-level commitment and participation has been vital in overcoming this challenge. As these leaders developed the plan, they felt they owned it. That was crucial for adoption.”
Social executives embody a brand’s mission, vision, and values both by transparently engaging in social business practices and keeping the company focused on the big-picture, long-term benefits of this new model. Measuring the success of social initiatives can be tricky, especially in narrow terms such as ROI.
Social executive leadership extends beyond simply driving change within a brand; it means finding ways to justify that change as well. The forward-thinking leaders we profile in “The Social Employee” understand this dynamic implicitly and have learned to harness the power of social to produce incredible results.