It should come as little news that the use of social media -- for all purposes, consumer and business both -- is currently at an all time high, with well over a billion people on the planet now using the medium regularly to stay connected with family, friends, colleagues, and customers.
Perhaps the most important uniqueness of social media itself is that the interaction within it is done entirely in public. These online conversations, which are "out out in the open", goes directly to the heart of the magic of the format. Of particular note is the ability to use social data to achieve what were formerly impossible -- or just very expensive -- yet vital business and civic objectives.
The public nature of social media conversations is also leading to increasingly thorny -- and urgent -- debates both within industries and at a national level about who actually owns all of this knowledge, what it can legitimately be used for, and who ultimately controls it.
Yet, despite the challenges, it's clear that social media is inexorably seeping into more and more of what businesses do every day. People praise, complain about, research, question, and seek help from companies around the clock by the millions via social media. Unfortunately, it's almost as obvious that many organizations are poorly prepared to think about and act on the significant competitive possibilities social media promises, all while a small cadre of leading organizations appear to be running ahead and divvying up the landscape.
To explore this latter topic in particular, I attended Oracle CloudWorld in Los Angeles earlier this week as a speaker, as well as to listen to those in attendance. It's ever more clear to me, from talking with other attendees and in other recent discussions, that the business world is not noticeably accelerating in the same way that the digital world is: In fact, it's falling behind, and badly in some cases as we'll see.
Customer experience management and digital engagement are the umbrella topics -- and buzzphrases du jour as ZDNet's own Paul Greenberg recently pointed out -- that are all the rage today when it comes to external digital strategy. But the simple truth is that most organizations are stuck in isolated silos when it comes to their marketing, sales, business development, and customer support processes. Each silo looks at a fragment of the customer journey, have their competencies in that area -- and aren't structured, much less optimized to handle a social customer -- who nimbly moves back and forth across all of these functions over time and doesn't understand the uncoordinated morass they find.
And it's meeting the needs of the notional social customer which is the ultimate objective here, who only cares about the nature and quality of the relationship they have with the businesses they work with, and not how the company is (often poorly) organized to work with them. In short, developing more effective systems of digital engagement will be the broad objective of the next half-decade.
While it remains to be seen how the growing gap between how the market wants to communicate and how businesses work will actually impact companies, though the data also shows that those that don't keep up are paying an increasingly high price as well.
So let's look at what was said at CloudWorld on getting our businesses ready for these changes.
At Cloudworld, famed social media thought leader Charlene Li of Altimeter opened up the day by walking the audience through her current thinking on social:
Without cloud, social would not be possible. It's not just convergence of people, but data and the content, data and the connections, they create among themselves and their companies.
We know that social media is much more than just Facebook. It's odd that we have to go to a certain place, a location, in order to be social. Social is so much more.
My theme for the enterprise is this: Social will be like air. It will be everywhere and anywhere you need it to be. To optimize its potential, we need to integrate it.
But key to understanding what organizations need to do about increasingly pervasive social media depends on their understanding of their place on the maturity curve, said Li. She enumerated the six steps of social business maturity as 1) Planning, 2) Presence, 3) Engagement, 4) Formalized, 5) Strategic & 6) Transformation, where most organizations are generally at step two right now.
While many business are still at a fairly low level of maturity with social, the devices, mobile apps, and social networks that people are using are leaving vast data trails across an ever-more fragmented set of channels, said Li. Today's new digital touchpoints are changing the relationships that companies have with customers from being "transient, transactional, occasional, and impersonal" to being "long-term, two-way, constant, and much more authentic". The quite different customer relationship that's emerging with leading brands that have embraced social does have a considerable learning curve, even if it also confers substantial value including higher customer loyalty, satisfaction, and yes, also very real bottom line benefits.
But the real issue with achieving ROI with social, said Li, is that social strategies are often disconnected from what's important to the organization:
They simply have no clear business impact. What's your business goal with Facebook, LinkedIn? I hear people say, "We want more fans, subscribers."
How does that help you move your strategic business goals forward?
I personally think that Li's take on social was the right one: That companies must determine where they are on the maturity curve, and lay the ground work for the next step. Then focus their efforts on updating their business processes and functions to by more social and better connected in a way that improves meaningful outcomes.
What was perhaps most surprising during the session, was when she asked if anyone in the audience had managed to map out their new customer experience. Almost no one raised their hand in the entire ballroom. Clearly, most organizations, reeling from various and competing impacts of consumerization, cloud, mobile, and social, are having a difficult time navigating the waters of today's rapid technology changes.
Related: Sizing up social business for 2012
My talk, later in the day, focused on how the customer journey is changing with the advent of widespread use of big data, social media, cloud, and smart mobility. While I've explored recently how the customer journey is changing (and predicted a critical mass of companies will take the plunge in revamping their end of it this year), I find that the hard-won lessons of companies that have largely succeeded in their attempts are the most valuable for others to build on.
From my research over the last year, and which I presented at CloudWorld, organizations which had the best results in changing how they engage with the marketplace via new digital channels typically discovered the following:
The challenge for organization's today is learning a very new discipline (social business, in the parlance) -- namely actually connecting and working with the marketplace via digital channels at scale -- all the while the technology changes keep on coming, faster than they can usually be aborbed using traditional IT approaches. As I've observed before, this pace will be untenable in many organizations until they figure out the hard lessons required to change the way they apply digital broadly to their lines of business.