What Is A Social Business?

In response to my post defining social selling, I realized that I needed to take a step back and define “What is a social business?”

There is a lot of talk about the social business and too often it involves a discussion of social tools and channels. In this article I’ll offer my own definition as well as plenty of links to other resources you can check out for more ideas on how to help your organization transform into a social business.

A social business is not a business that sends a lot of Tweets or has a ton of Facebook likes. A social business is one that realizes that it operates in a more transparent and social world. And so it makes customers and employees equally as important as its shareholders and profits.

What is a Social Business?

I define a social business as an open, social community of active content producers who are engaged with their content consumers, social connections, customers, partners and employees to exchange value. I have also seen social business defined as one where the interests of customers and employees are equal to that of the business.

A social business places equal value on the needs of its customers, employees, partners and shareholders.

This is not all that different from the concept behind one of the first posts I wrote, in which I talked about a book called “The Service Profit Chain” that inspired a lot of my early professional thoughts on marketing strategy.

The basic theory presented in the book was that happier employees generate more customers who create more profit for the business. Makes sense, right? Yet in the race to quarterly profits, many businesses still struggle with the concept.

More recently I talked about the many reasons why social business is important and I presented my own roadmap to become a social business including the need to define a social strategy that empowers social employees, activates effective content strategy and addresses the issue of culture.

Peter Kim from the Dachis Group offers his own definition of the Social Business as well as a Social Business Design. He identifies “culture, connections, participation and analytics” as the main drivers of an effective social business.

Charlene Li from Altimeter Group recently presented on the Evolution of Social Business and talked about the 6 stages of transformation: “Planning, Presence, Engagement, Formalized, Strategic, and Converged.” They surveyed a large swath of companies and found a small minority (28%) have achieved any level of social business maturity.

And then there’s my friend Jeremiah Owyang who not only nailed how to bring content strategy into the social business but also defined the next phase of social business as “the collaborative economy” which he defines as “where brands will rent, lend, provide subscriptions to products and services to customers, or even further, allow customers to lend, trade, or gift branded products or services to each other.”

Edelman’s Michael Brito writes that “social business is not about communication. It’s not about technology or Enterprise 2.0. It’s about change management. I believe this to my core.” And I think he’s absolutely right.

What Separates a Social Business from a “Regular” Business?

The truth is, identifying a social businesses and separating those traits from less social peers is not easy.

I have suggested combining the forces of predictive analytics, social media, big data and the cloud to define a new metric of marketing success called “share of conversations.” But I’m not sure that is enough.

In a recent article, Nick Kellet (@NickKellet) asked if passion would be the marketing metric of the future where we measure “share of mind” or “share of heart?”

Whatever we call it, we are experiencing a battle for customer attention. And I believe it is empathy that will separate the companies that are successful in becoming social businesses from those that struggle with the conversations happening in the marketplace without them.

The Social Media Challenge

The fact is that most social media marketing stinks as companies have reacted to their customers and employees use of social media by creating an overwhelming and unsustainable number of social media accounts. According to the Altimeter Group, the average company has 178 social media accounts.

And these accounts are simply adding noise to the content marketing echo chamber because  most of the content coming from these accounts is dreadfully boring.  It makes the biggest marketing mistake of all by only talking about the company, the products it has to sell, and why you should buy them.

And the next generation of employees and customers are even less likely to put up with these overly-promotional lectures. They are seeking conversations with the brands they want to support.

The Social Business Imperative

I believe we need social, content and employee empowerment strategies to move beyond social guidelines and training on the tools.  We need to help the business build an army of brand ambassadors with strong personal brands. And we need to encourage them to engage with customers, partners and fellow employees on the platforms they want.

The process to build these mechanisms is well known and widely discussed. The problem is not “how to do it?”

The problem is that most organizations do not possess the secret ingredient to building a social business: empathy.

Is Empathy the Secret Ingredient to a Social Business?

Search for branded websites that you love and you will find that nearly all of them speak to you (the visitor) and the value you will receive as opposed to being about themselves (what they sell). Look at brands that connect with you and you will realize that they make you feel like they sincerely care about you.

For my wife (@lizbrenner), Zappos and Warby Parker exemplify this spirit by allowing you to return items for any reason on them or order multiple versions of the same items to find the one you might love the most. These companies make my wife feel like they care about her.

I think it is as simple as that. But empathy is hard. Empathy means focusing on the long-term value of customer satisfaction, loyalty and retention. Empathy means you have to stop trying to promote yourself and put your customer and employee needs ahead of the business’ short-term goals.

How Do We Get There?

What is the role of the Marketing leader in this emerging social business and collaborative economy? Would having more socially-engaged executives help? Do we need leaders who make empathy a core value of their companies? How do we hire, promote and encourage leaders who espouse empathy?

In my view, marketing is uniquely positioned to lead this transformation. As more employees become socially active brand ambassadors and build their personal brand, marketing can act as the shepherd guiding the flock with good old fashioned marketing communications techniques that put the customer first, that are aligned to the business strategy and that deliver business outcomes.

Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner  is a Top CMO, Content Marketing and Digital Marketing Influencer, an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula" and he is the CEO and Founder of Marketing Insider Group, a leading Content Marketing Agency . He has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups. Today, Michael helps build successful content marketing programs for leading brands and startups alike. Subscribe here for regular updates.

17 thoughts on “What Is A Social Business?

  1. Excellent insights, Michael. The crux as you said is that social business is about transformational change, not simply new technologies. That seems incredibly difficult for a lot of companies to grasp and undertake currently.

  2. Michael,
    I partially agree and partially disagree with your definition of a social business. I agree that a social business is a mature one that values transparent engagement with customers and employees, actually anyone who has contact with the brand…The operative word here is “mature.” This requires adult supervision….Where I disagree is with the notion that marketing can lead the transformation. It must begin with the C suite. Marketing is powerless to create a social business mindset if the C suite doesn’t build an organization wide social business culture. Only then can marketing provide leadership, guidance and support. My 2 cents….
    – Bernie Borges

    1. Thanks Bernie, and I think you are absolutely right. Marketing is in a position to drive some of the changes because they are “marketing skills” (or communications skills) in many cases that are required for the transformation. But it has to be culture and leadership from the C-Suite that has to define the vision and the path for the social business. Great point and thanks for keeping me honest!

  3. Hi Michael,

    Good post. I personally believe the problem is that most businesses cannot conceptualise the opportunity, hence it IS a communication issue – for the moment.

    I dont believe that marketing is best placed to lead as they themselves are struggling. Content marketing is currently ‘just another buzzword’ for the vast majority.

    As for the C-suite, until it is tried, tested, put through the corporate wrangler, and validated by the McKinsey’s of this world only the true innovators will lead.

    Processes will help further the cause, but the bigger change that is needed is a conceptual one. On that I 100% agree.

    – Steve Seager

    Some input on that conceptualising issue: https://www.steveseager.com/social-business-design-thinking-points/

    1. Thanks Steve, kind of an innovator’s dilemma right! I think you are right that marketers are struggling but I also think that the innovative marketers, the ones who saw social media as a cultural phenomenon and not a new set of promotional tactics, and the ones who are now not just talking about content marketing but applying it – I think these marketers are set to gain more authority and influence on the C-Suite of tomorrow. Do we have a long way to go? Yep. But I think it is an imperative. Our customers will force us all there eventually.

  4. As always an excellent post Michael. There is such a shift now in thinking and implementation of marketing strategies that the culture of the organisation has to shift along with it. I have worked with businesses in terms of Lean transformations and as with this – unless the ownership and senior management teams are fully engaged the change will falter..

  5. Michael — thank you for the mention!! As usual, good content …. you are a machine!

    1. Thanks Michael, most days I feel like more of a broken record than a machine but I appreciate the complement! Hope all is well and we get to hang out soon.

  6. I am not sure Social Business is a Marketing Led Strategy… I think it is a Customer Centric, Employee Centric, Idea Centric, HR Centric… etc. where Marketing has a valuable role to play..

    I am asked about this all the time.. what is the value? Well to a Bank it may be that they can bring together Small Businesses with synergistic strategies in order for them to grow together and create opportunity for the Brand Portfolio e.g if you are a small florist and can team with a courier, or a wedding planner, why would the bank not feature you as Small Business of the Week/Month/Mother’s/Valentines day and offer a discount associated with your Credit card? and then allow “Social Media” promotion to proliferate “Social Business”? Why would same “ideation” or Customer feedback of a teller not be immediately fed back to Marketing to revise Offerings on the fly to immediate change a promotion in real time? Why would the scripts in a targeted product call centre not be changed to take advantage of the instantaneous feedback produced from the “sharp end” of the business to target the right customers with the right products based on real time understanding of campaigns? What happens when this 24 hour, follow the sun business, needs all of it’s employee’s to be up to date on the latest promotions and offers and have them at their finger tips so a common representation of the company is a must? What happens when one call centre transitions to the next?
    How do I attract and onboard a new employee even before they join my business?
    Social Business is about full adoption and integration, and less about silo’s of who it benefits most. It should, and does, benefit all.
    Social Business is the remover of boundaries
    The smart companies get this and are fully inclusive, the ones who don’t.. well…. let’s hope they do quickly for the sale of us all 🙂

    1. Thanks David, amazing insights and use cases. Thanks for all those examples. And I really like the comment about social business as the “remover of boundaries.” I will plan on using that, with attribution of course. 😉

  7. Michael: Thanks for the re-post: it’s right on the mark. I really enjoyed what you said about: “social business including the need to define a social strategy that empowers social employees, activates effective content strategy and addresses the issue of culture.” I think you need buy-in from management and you will get that when marketers and empowered employees participate in and understand the over-all business goals and devise a strategy with transparent metrics to prove performance. Also, it’s imperative that everything is connected and done with competence; still today, employees and some SM contractors do SM just to be doing it and being done by tech-savvy youngsters who don’t keep their eyes on those business goals, adding to the slow traction and questionable perception of SM marketing.

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