Who should own social media?

There’s a struggle going on in big companies around the world: what organization should own social media?  The social media pundits say “everyone should own social media.” But it’s not that simple. Here are some of my musings.  Thoughts?

When no one is in charge: land grabs and boom towns gone wrong

We’ve all been in towns and resorts that have been ruined because of land grabs, dominating developers and lack of good zoning rules.  These places are ugly mishmashes of over-development, feeling less like a community and more like a developer boomtown gone horribly wrong.

Six years ago a team led by Dr Walter Carl, now CEO of Chat Threads,   and I  researched the root causes of issues between real estate developers and local citizen, environmental, economic development and neighborhood groups. (“This Land Is My Land…But Could Be Our Land: Developing Influencer Relationships to Accelerate Development Success.”)

The report conclusion was that community groups distrusted and disliked developers because developers didn’t effectively listen to them, didn’t engage with the intent to educate and build understanding, and didn’t accommodate their interests in what was eventually built. The developers said the right things to these groups, but they were largely disingenuous. In the end their developments served just one audience:  potential customers for their properties.

This community development metaphor is relevant to how many large companies are approaching social media.   Lack of zoning guidelines, an influential, dominant organization controlling the best “real estate” to reach prospects, and other less dominant groups having to fight the controllers to get beach access for their audiences. This is the mess that big enterprises are either sorting out – or working to avoid.

Real world community development metaphor:  who is best to be the town planner?

Humana, with one of the most innovative enterprise social media strategies, is using the community development metaphor — the Town Square —  to guide its company-wide social media strategy.

The centralized Humana social media group serves as the town planner, making sure every organization gets prime real estate, follows zoning guidelines, and understands community rules.  Yet the “town planners” also empower people and organizations to develop strategies within these guidelines that best meet the culture and needs of their specific audiences.

Every Humana organization that wants to be part of the “town” social media development can join Human’s social media “Chamber of Commerce,” which meets monthly and live Tweets meeting notes in the spirit of sharing, transparency and open collaboration.  Everyone at Humana who becomes part of the town – with real estate participation in varying social channels – is tasked to share what they’re learning at the Humana “town square,” a knowledge portal by any other name.

Serving multiple audiences through communications

Social media channels are communications channels, serving wide and diverse audiences, all of whom connect to a company in different ways for different reasons – to learn about services, get customer support help, find out where to get local service, talk to other employees in other parts of the world to get advice, recruit new talent, learn more about company activities to inform investment decisions, understand citizenship initiatives.

The list is long. the point is simple: social media serves multiple audiences.  The organization “owning” social media must know how to serve and communicate with multiple audiences.

This group must know how to make these audiences feel heard and communicate with them in a way that is above all genuine and provides value.  In this social world it is the value of the communications content to the audience that builds brand reputation and relationship equity – and feeds the social networks. Channels and networks are like phones: they’re only as valuable as the communications that takes place using the tool.  What is valuable? It’s different for different audiences, and a company needs to acknowledge this and change its content approach to serve today’s audiences.

“What people want from a corporation is content with which to sustain their social networks,” explains Grant McCracken, a research affiliate at C3 at MIT and author of Chief Culture Officer: How To Create a Living, Breathing Corporation. “Consumers will embrace our invention (content/communications) when those inventions provide value. They will embrace our investments when they can distribute them. They will embrace our inventions when they increase their social capital.”

Social media bombs: managing social like an advertising channel, serving just one audience

Many Fortune 500 social media efforts have gone splat because they used social channels like new push advertising channels, rather than using them as conversational channels to build understanding, relationships, trust, and ultimately brand preference.

These failed social media initiatives were like going to a party with a bore who talks only about his job, his children, his accomplishments.  It doesn’t take too long for people to tune him out, run the other way, and warn their friends away.

Staples, TJX, Wal-Mart, for example, launched and closed high-profile social communities that failed for this reason. The conversations were all about the companies and their products, providing little value to the audience.  When companies use social channels like marketing channels,  the programs often sputter, and sometimes even backfire.

A soft drink  brand ran a Facebook avatar promotion in Europe that was a big hit until it was a big miss because people felt spammed. “Oh, it’s another company using social media to advertise at us.” The brand, though trying to provide value through branded entertainment, failed to engage and provide value.

While these marketing-led campaigns were disappointing, the real failure was that these companies were not paying enough attention on how to communicate with multiple audiences in new social ways. It was all about “social advertising.”  Much of the social media control was in the hands of advertising and marcom organizations, which are accountable for just one audience: customers.

Emerging wisdom: social ownership not about politics, but three key competencies

While there is no best practice about what organization should own social media in a large enterprise, there is emerging wisdom that the best organization to own social media is an organization that understands how to:

  1. Communicate with multiple, diverse audiences, providing value in the communications.
  2. Act as town planners, developing the zoning and infrastructure that benefits every organization in the enterprise community;
  3. Practice servant leadership: serving the needs of organizations across the enterprise, focusing more on achieving their social vision and associated outcomes, and less on organizational recognition and status.