Only a few minutes ago (relatively speaking in the passage of time) most companies didn't think they needed to have a website or a domain name strategy. This seems as foolish now as ignoring social medial will seem in a few minutes from now.In 1995 - a mere 13 years ago - I was a young associate in a downtown law firm making a pitch to a skeptical management committee at a weekend retreat that the firm needed a website and an email "system". It was not an easy sell. They "knew" lawyers would never send their own emails and certainly not use it to communicate with clients. Similarly they were convinced a website would likely not bring in any new clients and existing clients would not likely find a website useful. In the end, the only thing that convinced them of the need for a website was that it would likely be a good recruiting tool because it would make them seem hip to all the kids coming out of school. They finally also acquiesced to email only because it was seen to be an easy way to exchange documents with fellow attorneys.
How quickly they were proven wrong.
On a similar front, not that long ago many companies were caught without the domain names they would later need - or wish they had - related to their company names, product names, IP, etc. The most coveted .com domain name turf went to those with early foresight to be proactive and/or those with deep enough pockets to buy back the domains they wanted. Many companies wished they had not ignored the importance of domain names to their overall IP and business strategy.
We are at a similar technological threshold. Most companies are ignoring the importance of "social media" to their corporate strategy. Most consider using social media an unnecessary "luxury" in exactly the same way websites, domain names, and email were considered by people in their positions only a few years ago. They do not understand how social media is already changing the way they do business, the importance of staking position/profile early, nor the pain they will feel in the very near future for having failed to be proactive in building and leveraging online communities.
This is very understandable. In times of fiscal constraint one tends to focus on that which hurt you yesterday or causes you the most pain today. Nonetheless, the companies that will succeed tomorrow are looking at tomorrow now and preparing for it. Tomorrow's mainstream business activities involve social media as much as today's involves website and email.
For those thinking that this will be true only for businesses that deal direct with the retail consumer, you're dead wrong. If you have a constituency that you need to keep informed about and actively engaged in your company, then this applies to you. Whether its business (B2B) customers, investors, media, patients, recruits, employees, or collaborators, they are online and engaging in social media. If you're not there, they're listening to and engaging with someone else.
For those thinking this is just for tech companies or small companies (with small budgets that can't afford traditional media), you're also wrong. Pieter Kim has put together an enlightening list of examples of big companies now using social media: (http://www.beingpeterkim.com/2008/09/ive-been-thinki.html).
Let's start with some basics. I'll define "social media" as the 'interactive' side of the internet. So not the 'passive' sites where there is a one-way feed on information but rather Web 2.0 - those sites that have the capacity for readers to provide content, interact with the author/each other, and/or post comments or feedback. I'm talking about blog, podcasts, online communities, discussion boards, Wikis, and social networking sites.
This year Bioinformatics LLC announced the results of a survey of 1,500+ scientists in the life sciences primarily from North America (47%), Europe (36%), and Asia (11%) (http://lifesciencesocialmedia.com). Among their top 10 findings were the following:
1. Scientists interact with various forms of social media intermittently throughout the day
- 27-32% spending1-2 hrs/day on blogs, content aggregators/portals, discussion boards, social networking sites, audiocasts, and/or wikis).
- 30% said it has helped them "discover more options to solve a problem
- 24% "faster access to news, research, and trend information"
- ~50% of respondents said blogs, discussion boards, and/or social networking sites "facilitate the sharing of ideas with colleagues and/or the scientific community"
- ~30+% said blogs, content aggregators, podcasts, and wikis allowed them to "make a more educated decisions about purchasing new products and/or technologies"
- ~40% said content aggregators, podcasts, and wikis made "it easier to research new products and/or technologies"
5. Over half of respondents said they participate or "visit but don't participate" in online communities for their "research and/or professional activities.
6. Scientists agree that social media has influenced their purchasing decisions — but not the purchasing process.
7. Scientists want content that helps them better do their jobs. The top objection to using online communities was that "it would take too much time to maintain". Yet among users of social media, one of the top benefits cited was that it helped them do their jobs better.
There is no question the internet is now considered a primary resource of passive information access. Web 2.0's social media is all about making the internet the place to exchange information. Just as the best part of a lecture is often the post-talk Q&A or informal networking, web 2.0 is about online discussions. Users/participants of social media know that to maximize the value of these tools, one must share. The biblical maxim, "Give and you shall receive" applies here. You get out the same kind of value you put in. It's a discussion. It only works if both sides contribute. As with any form of networking, it always comes down to exchanging value. If you're only about self-promotion and not sharing something of value, you will be ignored and the benefits of social media will elude you.
Increasingly your constituents (customers, collaborators, investors, patients, employees, etc) expect to see you making a contribution to the online community. For many, being a good corporate citizen involves contributing value and exercising transparency and accountability. Increasingly they will select to do business with those companies they see and interact with online.
J&J and other pharmas now have blogs used to inform and interact with their constituents - media, patients, investors, etc. Many now have patient-oriented and/or disease-specific websites loaded with social media features. Even the NIH is using YouTube for clinical trial patient recruitment.
It is not enough now to build a website. For example, I spoke with a potential client just this week moaning that despite having a site for over a year it simply isn't showing up on search engines. You have to position your online content so people find it, have content that is useful to people vs simple self-promotion, and find ways to engage people: make them participate and keep them coming back.
Think beyond the website. Think professional society sites (e.g., ISCT, blogs). Think content aggregators (e.g., Cell Therapy News, BioSpace). Think business utilization of social media tools (e.g., LinkedIn, Facebook). Think blogging - corporate blog, employee blogging, following and commenting on blogs, and microblogging (e.g, Twitter). Think online discussion boards - monitoring for and posting content related to your business. Think using online tools that enhance search engine optimization and profile (e.g, Wikis). Think online audio-video content (e.g., podcasts, YouTube, Flickr) for education, training, profile, patient-recruitment, and general profile among media, investors, employees/recruits, etc.
And just in case you're still not convinced that your company must have a social media strategy, consider that your employees and customers are already there and likely dropping your company name. Here's a couple examples. I read people all the time on Twitter who regularly slag their job talking about things their boss would likely cringe at knowing were not just shared with a few friends but with all of Cyberspace in a searchable, eternally-archived way. If anyone is looking to work at their firms, a few online searches will bring up these threads. Another story I heard first-hand recently was of a young employee who was simply posting events of his day online including the troubles they were encountering with the technology s/he was working on. Information of the kind that would have been very informative to the competitor and not so comforting to the customers!
One simple application with enormous and immediate potential ROI is leveraging social media for sales and customer support. Online discussion groups or user groups are the easiest way to support customers and provide an information database for CSRs and product development teams. Building and mining "contacts" on social media sites is the modern-day version of the rolodex for sales teams. Contact lists easily convert to lead sheets, newsletter subscribers, and customers. Active participants in topical groups on social media (e.g., the Cell Therapy Industry group on LinkedIn) can be used to identify thought leaders, champions, detractors, etc. Furthermore they can be used as idea generators, beta thought-testing, focus groups, recruitment tools, etc.
Finally, hearkening back to my lawfirm days...maybe you just decide to use social media to recruit the new, smart kids. Just remember, its a little different world online so make sure your participation is genuine, transparent, and of value. With recruitment becoming increasingly competitive, leveraging social media may well be the only way to find and attract top talent.
Bottom line? There are so many different kinds of social media out there that can be used to reach so many different kinds of audiences at a fraction of the cost of traditional media that it's just good business to figure out how to use it to your advantage. In fact, you may be feeling the pain of ignoring it already and just don't know it...