Sizing up social business for 2012

There were many shifts in how businesses applied social media to how they worked last year. These were the most significant ones.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

Without a doubt, organizations of all sizes encountered social media in more of its various forms last year than ever before. Whether it was the marketing team or customer care looking to expand the reach of their traditional channels to encompass where their customers have moved or employees looking for better tools to find each other and share knowledge, social media seeped deeply into how companies worked in a major way in 2012.

Anecdotally, with a growing complement of hard-won experience in the tools, technologies, and techniques of social business last year, companies are poised to have full contact with social media in 2013 like never before. From a statistical and trend perspective, the most recent data shows that we've now moved beyond the end of the beginning. Social media is no longer largely unknown and ignorable, but the exceedingly familiar and increasingly indispensable for many businesses.

However, as organizations experimented with and widely deployed social media in their various functions, 2012 also became an breakthrough year for teasing out the more intractable issues of the medium that are likely to vex many enterprises in the coming years. As companies grappled with the cultural, organizational, technical, and process issues that the open and participative nature of social media brought to the fore, we began to see some of the way through the challenges as well.

Social Business Trends in 2012


The social business software industry didn't stand still in 2012 either, from a big vendor perspective in particular. New and existing players either made significant updates to their social business tools and platforms, or revised their go-to-market strategies and end-user solutions to match. Along the way, significant new niches established themselves within the space to support the unique needs of the enterprise, particularly around analytics, security, and compliance. Organizations also sought to scale-up their social media efforts as efficienctly as possible to get at the benefits in a meaningful way.

Related: The social enterprise: Nine insights

But perhaps the most important development of the year was the maturation and accumulation of experience in how to make social business work in large enterprises. The complex dance that early adopters were forced to learn in trying to balance the constantly changing social business landscape leveled out a bit finally in 2012. For once, the seemingly endless growth of consumer social media seemed to align better with their organizations' own evolution through the early tactical experiments, subsequent pilot projects, and broader enterprise-wide adoption.

There are now signs of real maturity in the industry, such as the emergence of social media mission control rooms and well-funded centers of excellence, combined with real staffs and budgets, that are moving social media into the day-to-day operations of many organizations. While not all, or even most, organizations are quite this far along, a critical mass appear to be, and it's encouraging that we seem to be headed in this direction overall.

The Stand-Out Social Business Trends of 2012

So, with all of this in mind, what did we see in 2012 that stands out in retrospect as an inflection point or major development in the realm of social business? From my analysis and end-of-year conversations, here's what took place:

  • The re-unification of social business. While 2011 was dominated by the realization that social media must be connected to daily work to have real impact, 2012 revealed that organizations had created numerous social silos that fragmented their efforts and people, especially when it came to the walls they erected between internal and external social media. Yet, a growing body of evidence clearly showed that when social business environments had the least barriers and most connection between them, the measurable business outcomes were substantially higher. Many organizations I spoke with this year are now planning to address the disconnect between internal and external efforts better and reduce their social media silos.
  • The big vendors moved into social business. While IBM has long been a leader in social business, up until recently, the other software giants either had minor side bets or had platforms that could be social, but was not their primary function. This all changed in 2012 as Oracle, SAP, and Microsoft each doubled-down on social business by making substantial new public commitments to it, major related acquisitions, or introducing new software products. Or all three. SAP announced their far-reaching Jam effort, Microsoft acquired Yammer, beefed up SharePoint 2013, and updated their social business vision, while Oracle's Larry Ellison finally put his company into the industry at the CEO level. Of all of these, only Microsoft's moves seem to have made it rather challenging for social business practitioners in the short term, as the reformulation and resurgence of Redmond's social business offerings seem to be causing widespread re-evaluation of platform decisions in many of the companies I've talked to recently.
  • Social business became data-driven. You couldn't sit through a presentation last year without hearing about the confluence of big data and social media, and more specifically how it will allow companies to zero-in on ROI. While the experiments to validate the latter almost certainly abound in a pilot project near you, the former became reality as hundreds of companies got into the social data business last year. The goal? To turn the mass of global conversations in social media into relevant insights that can improve results in marketing, sales, customer care, product development, and more. Numerous software firms added social analytics and business intelligence features to their existing products, while a great many new startups received funding to see if they could strike the right balance between usability, timeliness, relevance, and actionable information. What's more, enterprises were kicking the tires of these capabilities in droves, with virtually every company I spoke to last year closely watching the space and trying out numerous offerings.
  • Mobile hampered social business projects more than it helped them. I almost wrote that the rise of smart mobile devices and tablets significantly impacted social business strategies in most companies, but that should be obvious to just about everyone. What's less obvious is that the strong user pull of mobile devices, which are (potentially) perfect for delivery of social business user experiences, made it awkward for older efforts still rolling out their pre-mobile social marketing and workforce engagement efforts. Projects that sought stop-gap solutions often delayed their own timelines overall or provided subpar interim solutions. Even more vexing, the level of quality of mobile apps for enterprise social business efforts, either homegrown or from vendors, was generally quite a bit lower than the consumer-side. While vendors such as Jive and Salesforce greatly improved their offerings, users that wanted to engage socially on mobile devices were often disappointed this year. However, there's no question that the situation will improve in the fairly near future, yet it will be painful for a while as companies sort out and reconcile their (usually separate) social and mobile initiatives. In the end, I suspect, software vendors will be counted on to provide most of the default user experiences in this regard.
  • Social business merged with main customer experience. Or at least, organizations finally began to look at it this way. While social media used to be very much off to the side of the mainstream experience, with a community tab, some targeted social marketing widgets, or a row of 'follow me' buttons in a side bar, social justifiably became a first-class citizen of the customer experience in 2012. While a few brave souls in years past have thrown away their traditional digital experiences and made them all social, a new view has arisen to merge and combine the traditional and social customer experiences into something more holistic, natural, and expected by today's consumer. While organizations will likely take years to realize it in practice, it was encouraging to see this vision on so many drawing boards this year.

Where there other social business happenings in 2012? There certainly were, and you can find great roundups of these from industry analyst Michael Fauscette and Leanne Chase at The Community Roundtable. However, in my analysis, the five major issues above were the most impactful and relevant to social business initiatives overall. Organizations wishing to fast-forward their efforts can capitalize on these major crux points in the industry's social business journey, and avoid taking the long route along the way to becoming more effective digital businesses.

What did you see as the biggest social business trends of 2012?

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