The Social Business Imperative

Michael Brenner on Oct 18, 2012 in Marketing Strategy

What is the value of a social business? How do we become one? Can you create one? Or is it more about culture, motivation and the enablement of social forces already in play in today’s workforce?

These are questions that are not just being asked by marketers but by CEOs, business leaders and entrepreneurs around the world. We are rapidly moving beyond the question of why we need to become a social business to how to become a social business.  And how to maximize the value and the innovation that can result.

So stick with me while we take a brief journey. I’ll start with the market forces that are driving the realization that our businesses need to change or they will die. That we truly have a social business imperative.

We’ll talk about why this is important for CEOs and the amazing opportunity this holds for marketers who can seize the moment. Finally, we’ll talk about some simple steps to consider to achieve the goal of becoming a social business.

IBM study on Social CEOs

The Digital, Social, Mobile Revolution

The world has changed rapidly in just a few short years. The rise of the internet and then very quickly social connectivity and mobile accessibility have led to an amazing consumer revolution unlike anything before. And traditional organizational models have not been able to keep up. Not even close.

A survey by IBM of more than 1,700 CEOs earlier this year showed that only 16% of CEOs are active on social but projected that 57% of them expect to be in the next 3-5 years. Why the huge shift?  Because CEOs are seeing the opportunity to connect their suppliers, customers and employees using social technology.

According to Mark Fidelman on Forbes, the study reveals that CEOs are working hard to create a culture of “openness, transparency and employee empowerment.”

A more recent survey by social analytics firm Domo reveals that only 7% of CEOs are on Facebook, 4% on Twitter and in total, more than 70% have no social presence at all. Domo’s CEO Josh James believes that these CEOs are hurting their business results and “doing shareholders a massive disservice.

Marketing Is Dead!

As Bill Lee mentions in this widely shared Harvard Business Review article, CEOs are starting to see that traditional marketing is dead. And he continues to report that CEOs have lost patience with marketing.

Bill cites a 2011 study of 600 CEOs that report that nearly three-quarters of CEOs feel that their CMO “lacks business credibility” (73%) and are tired of being asked for money without a forecasted business impact (72%).

And CMOs? Well they seem to agree! 71% of CMOs admitted to feeling unprepared for the challenges of today’s business environment in a separate IBM survey.

“Social Media Sanitation”

In a recent talk, Altimeter analyst Jeremiah Owyang also painted a picture that the world has changed. And that we need “open leaders” who can manage reactionary internal pressures and the increasing content demands of today’s information-saturated world.

He predicts that companies grounded in social media sanitation simply won’t scale. They will be stuck in cycles of reactionary pressures.

I agree. I also believe marketing leaders who fail to lead their companies on the path to scalable social business practices will continue to see their credibility threatened, their budgets shrink and their role devolve to one of managing a few outsourced vendor partners who coordinate events, manage the website and blast some emails.

Have I scared you enough yet to see the need to change? Well don’t take my word for it. Follow all the references included above and think long and hard about the marketing leadership gap and the role of marketing in your organization.

The Social Business Imperative

There is only once conclusion: we need to become social businesses. We need to accept the imperative to transform our organizations into an open, social and engaged community of active content producers.

Marketing has an opportunity to lead this change. We can drive social, content and employee empowerment strategies to move beyond social guidelines and governance to social activation and encouragement.  We need to help our organization build an army of brand ambassadors with strong personal brands.

The Social Business Model

I have to admit to being more than a little envious of the approach taken by our friends at IBM. Mark Fidelman gushes about them as the model of social business today as well as in the future. After reading those testimonials it’s easy to see why.

At a recent event, I heard Kevin Green talk about how he helped IBM model social business types. Then they used those segments (examples include “creators, listeners, responders“) to develop a “social eminence” program.

They now have 4,000 empowered ambassadors (who wouldn’t want that?) across the organization who are constantly seeking to make social connections with content and that can be mobilized at a moment’s notice.

They claim it is “the most powerful marketing tool they have” as those conversations are driving 3 times the conversions of more traditional marketing efforts.

What is the path to a social business?

  • I think we need a solid social strategy that empowers all employees (not just in marketing) to become strong personal brands and ambassadors for our company.
  • We need an effective content strategy to put the knowledge, passion and experience of our employees to work to answering our customers’ information needs.
  • We need new skills and people to drive social activation across all layers of the organization.
  • We need social leaders at the top and throughout our organizations that drive change from our traditional company culture to one of openness, transparency and engagement.

What do you see as the main barriers to social business in your organization? Let me know what you think in the comments below. And please follow along on TwitterLinkedInFacebook and Google+ or Subscribe to the B2B Marketing Insider Blog for regular updates.

Photo Source

Michael Brenner
Michael Brenner
Michael Brenner is a globally-recognized keynote speaker, author of The Content Formula and the CEO of Marketing Insider Group. 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 shares his passion on leadership and marketing strategies that deliver customer value and business impact. He is recognized by the Huffington Post as a Top Business Keynote Speaker and a top CMO influencer by Forbes. Please follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook and Subscribe here for regular updates.
Showing 23 comments
  • Jonathan Winch

    Great post, Michael. Lots of good points. One I would like to address a little is “I think we need a solid social strategy that empowers all employees (not just in marketing) to become strong personal brands and ambassadors for our company”. You’re right, of course. But my own perception is that, at least today, only a minority of employees are a good proposition for companies to include in their social strategies. At the risk of sounding reactionary, I believe that most B2B companies today are only ready to take small steps toward a solid social strategy. And that those small steps are best handled by including a smaller group of employees, albeit from across the organization. It won’t have escaped your notice, or that of most of your readers, that the companies doing the best socially powered marketing are content marketers/advisors by trade. When I look at the steps required for an “ordinary” employee to perform at the same level (which is something we are working with daily) in social contexts, I realize we are far off an optimal result. Perhaps you could share your thoughts about employee-driven ambassadorship (is that a word?), i.e. where employees find their own ways to get genuinely involved, versus marketing-controlled and -facilitated ambassadorship where employee inputs are carefully managed?

    • Michael Brenner

      Hi Jonathan, I totally appreciate your concerns and thoughts about caution. I think you are right that we should start small with those folks across the organization who might have both the desire and the skills. That’s the IBM approach. They invited every employee to take what is basically a Myers-Briggs test and then those that scored as creators or sharers were put through the program. They went from 0 to 4,000 brand ambassadors who are fully trained and have full time staff support.

      The Marcus Sheridan approach is EVERY employee should become part of the solution and support the content creation process.

      The answer is probably different for each company but I do believe we are all moving in that direction and the winners will be those companies that have sought to build this army early.

  • Elaine Joli

    Hi Michael,
    I couldn’t agree more with Jonathan Winch. When I hear that a corp has taken this idea on – I am not surprised they would handle it like every other issue in marketing.
    Challenge: We need to get social. Any Ideas?
    “Hey, what don’t we have employees take one of the many personality tests, weed out the nonconformers, the people on the egdes of the curve, the duds, the guys who don’t matter – identify the “creators, listeners and responders”. Label them with something terrific – like ambassadors – yeh, that’s it Ambassadors! We have 50,00 employess, so, say like, 7 or 8 percent is doable, so we could have, like, 4000 ambassadors to call on when we need them! Like a little lower paid sales army. Great idea – Sam – you taking this?”
    Here’s the problem. It’s not “building” a social media marketing plan, nor putting a plan into place to make it happen. Social media is organic. It happens because people want to be involved – the people who were “ambassadors for their companies were ambassadors before we knew about social media. They talked to their friends about what a great company they worked for. Their friends all knew what they did for living and they knew not to make a negative comment about that business in front of them. They loved going to work. They naturally spread the word; they didn’t have to have a Briggs/Meyers to tell them they were right for the job – nor become a part of an “army” of goodwill and Facebook typists.
    This is a top down issue. When folks are happy, involved in their work, their input and ideas respected, they are decently paid for what they do whether they are the cleaning crew, the receptionist, or the VP of Sales, they will not have a problem with staff being ambassadors. I would much rather have seen you use Zappos or 37 Signals or Eric Ryan’s company the Method, to illustrate how corps need to get the job done.
    Identifying people who should be “good candidates” for a social media campaign, ordering them to go out and spread the word is a bit like hiring a mercenary army – they’ll do it as long as there’s something in it for them.
    Social media is about organically having all your employees love going to work. How about a personal email from the CEO to every employee? How about CFO’s knowing everyone’s name that works on their floor? How about building social media from within FIRST and then see what great thing happen?

    • Michael Brenner

      Wow Elaine, I really appreciate your comment and your passion!

      I think you make some great points. I’m honestly not sure what the right approach is. When I searched on the term “social business” the IBM examples came up left and right. I didn’t see the Zappos or other examples but will look for them now. And since I just heard IBM explain the approach they have taken and I can SEE the positive results they achieve, I simply highlighted what they have done.

      One interesting thing I did not mention is that one of the questions posed to IBM during this conference session was “how did they motivate their employees to get involved?” The answer gets to much of what you said. The answer was that there was simply a culture that reinforced the need to be a social business. I believe IBM has cultivated a social culture by employing many of the things you suggest.

      I also believe Marcus Sheridan is really onto something in the way he approach companies holistically. Like I said, not sure what the right approach is but too few companies have mastered it. I don’t think there is a right answer and I’m sure there are a lot of wrong ways to approach it.

      I appreciate you sharing your thoughts to help us all think long and hard about ways to approach this.

      Best, Michael

  • Elaine Joli

    Rework by Jason Fried and Heinemeir Hansson
    the Method Method by Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry
    Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright

    Three books that your readers might be interested if they want to explore some great thoughts (and actions) in this topic.

    • Michael Brenner

      Thanks Elaine, I will definitely check them out and invite my readers to do the same.

  • Alex Joseph

    Thanks for a great post Michael. A lot of the discussion on social business revolves around internal collaboration between employees. Social media marketing mostly talks about companies reaching consumers on social media. Your points on employees becoming the ambassadors to customers are quite interesting and refreshing.

    Agree with the earlier comments – employees engaged in social media should be ‘self-selected’ and not conscripted by any top-down initiative, which is generally doomed to fail – or create ‘mercenaries’. The discussion reminds me of Euan Semple’s fascinating book with the apt title: ‘Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do’!

    • Michael Brenner

      Great point and I agree with you the comments here have all been right on the money. Top down never works with forcing behaviors but top-level examples will certainly provide the right motivation.

  • Gerardo A Dada


    Thanks for a good perspective on social business. I don’t think anyone questions the idea that businesses need to embrace social.

    However, I think the risk is that the term continues to be a buzzword that furthers he idea that social strategies are left to a social media team or to a small group of experts (or ambdassadors).

    IMHO, a social business is about customer centricity and new eays of engagement. Your last two bullets hit the nail in the head:
    – Social must happen at all layers (and departments) in the organization
    – It is about embracing a culture of openess,, transparency and engagement

    I want to shate this post I wrote back in June on the topic

    Would love to hear your thoughts on it


    • Michael Brenner

      Gerardo, I absolutely agree with your thoughts! I love the quote “Social Business is about being sincerely interested in listening to customers and empowering employees to have an open conversation with them.” I don’t know if you’ve been reading my posts here for long but that (customer centricity and listening) are the core and fundamental themes that run through every single thing I write.

      I think this is so hard and maybe counter-intuitive to so many people in business (even in marketing). But this will be forced to change. I look forward to sharing the journey with you!

  • Jonathan Winch

    Elaine, I think a lot of us are where you are (which Michael and others acknowledge) – wondering how close we can actually get employees to the social world in a way that truly supports the business. It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. My team has recently had a great deal of success with, a DuPont project we proposed to help the company move into the modern world of social/online marketing. We proposed that instead of ordinary websites and promotional materials proclaiming how smart the company’s people and products are, we would set up a “propaganda-free” online publication (in reality, a microsite) for the bakery ingredients side of the business. DuPont agreed and we created the activity together with Marketing. The point of the story is this: we went from announcing to a group of publicity-shy scientists that there was a new “show” they could be part of and would they mind helping out, to a situation where now, the company’s scientists and application specialists are lining up, hoping their work will be chosen for the next publication issue. And the results on the bottom line have exceeded all expectations. Why did it work? Well, my team is kind of against traditional marketing’s way of blowing the company’s trumpet (that’s why we wrote The Death of Propaganda). We just wanted the real magic in the company, the interaction between technical customers and technical subject matter experts from DuPont, to become a scalable experience on the web. When you look at the site, you won’t see hundreds of comments from prospects or customers, but that’s because, we understand, the majority choose to contact the company directly after engaging with the publication. Check out the tone and style – DuPont’s products take a very purposeful back seat to the expertise of its people. It’s been a great journey!

    • Michael Brenner

      Thanks Jonathan, I think you are onto something. The site is great!

      The penetration of business people on *any* social platform is nearly universal. On the whole, our employees are already social. The challenge is in motivating them to get active and share their professional passions (aka “work”) as well as their personal passions. I love the line “the death of propaganda”. When you remove the pressure employees feel to be promotional or even “on brand, I think it removes some of the barriers to the natural human tendency to want to share.

  • Emily Foshee

    Hi Brian,

    Great post on the importance of social media marketing. If this doesn’t inspire more CMOs to jump in feet first then I don’t know what will.

    Thanks for the info.

  • Jonathan Winch

    That’s it exactly, Michael – take the pressure off and remove the stigma of self-promotion and I think there are many employees out there who are ready to jump on the social bandwagon. Glad you liked the site.

  • Carmen Hill

    Love this post, Michael. I think the opportunities–and the challenges–are there not only in large enterprises like SAP and IBM, but also smaller businesses. Whether you have 50 employees or 50,000, you have to recruit, nurture and support your ambassadors while aligning their efforts to business goals. Thanks for all the great resources; reading on…

    • Michael Brenner

      Completely agree Carmen. I think small businesses can achieve a real competitive advantage if they use their size and move more swiftly to being open and transparent.

  • Elaine Joli

    I just went onto your site and loved the very fresh, bright, clean images – the pages are delightful and I’m sure remind your customers that at the end of the day, you want their customers to eat cake (Marie Antoinette notwithstanding). I think the end challenge is of course, to build a community.
    But community is much more than belonging to something. It’s about doing something together that makes belonging matter.
    I wish you great success with DuPont – I think they are lucky to have you.

  • Lynn Bruno

    Great topic Michael, and very stimulating discussion.

    To Elaine’s point, there have always been employees (and customers) who were natural evangelizers for companies and brands, and to Jonathan’s point, those people are going to be your best candidates to become social media ambassadors. Not everyone is going to want to do this.

    There is absolutely a top down issue. If people love coming to work every day and believe in your company or product, you will naturally have more who do. Social media is then just a platform (or collection of platforms) for bringing the voice of the evangelist to a wider audience.

    Administering a test to find these people sounds both clinical and cynical, and I can understand why Elaine would see that as an attempt to form a mercenary army of social media ambassadors. No doubt many companies will approach it that way, which is a somewhat chilling thought! But, people can smell fakeness on social media and that’s not going to cut it.

    I do agree with you that there is a big role for marketing to play in identifying these people, and equipping them to use social media to do what they would do naturally. The social media landscape can be overwhelming, even for the pros, and that keeps many would-be evangelizers relegated to promoting companies and brands person to person.

    This is going to require a different skill set, and a different approach from the marketing department. Marketers will need to let go of the idea that they alone are the creators who control the brand and the messaging. Instead, they’ll need to become trainers, coaches and leaders for many independent creators. It may be a tough transition for some, but helping people spread the word in their own voices will ultimately be far more powerful than any ‘messaging’ the marketing department could dream up.

    • Michael Brenner

      Hi Lynn, I really like how you brought in employee engagement and passion as key enablers to social activation. I think you are absolutely right! The big question is how to get that done and I think it comes back to top-down creating the culture you referred to.

      I did not mean to imply that testing is the approach every business should take. I was simply reporting what IBM is doing to attempt to become a social business. I think they have achieved some positive results but I am not suggesting that this is appropriate for every business, or even many businesses.

      I do hope to see marketing play a leading role, no matter what approach we take.

      Thanks for your patience with my blog comment issues and for the great insights.

  • Jonathan Winch

    Another aspect of motivating employees is the issue of language. There’s a lot of expertise in subject matter experts on staff, but many of them outside of the US don’t feel comfortable writing blogs etc. in English. They don’t want to appear incompetent because of grammatical mistakes, for example. And it takes them far longer to compose content overall. We try to get around this with video, but that’s no easy road either. Scandinavians and Germans, in particular, seem to be less confident and well-formulated on screen and on paper than, for example, people from the US or Britain. Then we have the Slavic cultures, where facial expressions are often completely absent and a monotone delivery is the norm. While positive from a credibility point of view, these issues cut down the percentage of “natural” social media ambassadors for multi-national companies. Ideally, we’d like to get more subject matter experts feeling comfortable talking directly to a camera in an off-the-cuff manner, but for most, it’s a real challenge. Has anyone else tried to solve this type of issue? And what were the results?

  • Bernie Borges

    We are soooooo much on the same page on this social business thing. I’ve been on the same soap box as you for about one year now. I’m certainly pleased there is heightened awareness on the topic. And, I share your opinion that IBM is a strong example to follow, although they should be considering that they have a vested interest in their social business solution offerings. To their credit, they are walking the walk.

    I’ve been on the speaking circuit on social business. If you skim my recent slides you’ll see many of the same points you make in your blog post.

    You may remember me mentioning to you that I’m working on creating a new social business internet TV show. It’s planned to launch in Q1. I look forward to having you on my show, probably several times since there is so much to discuss on this topic.

    • Michael Brenner

      Thanks Bernie, it seems we are on the same page on a lot of these topics. I am honored to share this great fight with you. And I look forward to the privilege of being on your new show. Send me the details when you know more and consider me a lock!