Tap social to make business personable

newsmaker Companies benefit from improved efficiencies and revenue and having human face via social media tools, says Sandy Carter, IBM's social business evangelist and self-professed social addict.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor
Sandy Carter

newsmaker By unleashing itself into the social realm, IBM gained a face, a personality and was ranked second best brand globally, according to Sandy Carter, the company's vice president of social business sales and evangelism.

Having experimented with social media and seen it yield positive business outcomes, Carter believes that while social enterprise tools optimize revenue, efficiency and cost reduction, social business--and its success--is ultimately about people and culture, not technology.

Although she was put in charge of IBM's newly-formed social business division only in January this year, Carter is no stranger to social having used these tools in her earlier positions within the company, which included being vice president and general manager for software group, business partners and midmarket, and chief marketing officer for SOA and WebSphere.

The experience gave her the know-how to help boost Big Blue's foothold in a market that analyst firm IDC estimated to be worth US$200 billion.

A tech veteran with over 20 years in the industry, Carter joined IBM after graduating from Duke University with a Bachelor of Science degree in math and computer science. She went on to earn an MBA from Harvard, though she was accepted into Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a PhD in computer science.

It was a matter of choice, between technology and business, said the self-confessed "geek girl" who is fluent in eight programming languages. Other than her mantra, "it's about people, not about technology", Carter's inclination toward making connections with others is evident from her extensive--and intensive--use of social media which she described as "addictive".

The technology industry has also recognized her success with using social to drive business. Carter was ranked in the Top 10 Women in Social Media list by the Altimeter Group and Fast Company's Most Influential Women in Technology. In 2009, Carter was named Brand Leader of the Year by the World Brand Congress.

The IBMer sat down for chat with ZDNet Asia this week during her visit to Singapore as part of a region-wide business tour, and also shared why the collaborative and consensus-driven characteristics of social business would make technology industry more appealing to the fairer sex.

Can you recall what your very first encounter with social media was like?
Carter: I had done discussion forums before, but the first blog for business I did was probably around 2004. I really like to look at future trends and what's happening in the marketplace. Lots of universities and influencers were blogging at the time, so it looked like blogged was just getting ready. I was one of the first 10 bloggers at IBM who blogged on a subject matter expertise, which was SOA (service-oriented architecture) for me, and it was great because it was like having a conversation with my clients on a daily basis.

I'd blog about new features and new references, post questions and ask my clients and potential clients what they thought about things. Influencers like the press and analysts would talk about the subject and read the blog regularly. It was so powerful; we got the largest whitespace deal through my blog.

It had such an impact that we decided to go further, so the second thing we tried was YouTube. Today, everybody posts videos on YouTube but at the time, IBM had never posted a video to YouTube, ever. My team was the first group to do so, which seven years ago, was amazing. In fact, I got called by lawyers and people, saying "Why did you do this? What is happening? What is this thing?" The video, which was about SOA, quickly went up to No. 1 on YouTube's tech charts. So all that was kind of my first foray into social.

You've been immersed with technology since university and witnessed IT trends stay and fade. What was it about social that made you feel it's not just some flash in the pan?
It was its similarity to the Internet era. I actually worked on e-business for IBM when we first looked at the Internet. And I remember those initial days where clients would say: "Oh, the Internet would never be used in business." In fact, one bank CIO told me there'll never be such a thing as Internet banking. Today, a company wouldn't consider going into business without something on the Web.

A similar pattern now exists for social. Just like there was for the Internet, today, there is a potential to monetize social for business. So that's really what I saw. When I started experimenting with it in my own work, it was that ability of using it to drive my business that made me to go to IBM and say, look this is an opportunity area as big as the Internet.

IDC recently sized the social market at US$200 billion and US$50 billion of that should be opportunity here in Asia-Pacific. They're calling social the fifth era of IT that has an impact on business; Internet was the fourth.

What's your take on social business?
A social business is taking social media to the next step. Social media is about marketing, communications and PR (public relations). Social business is about doing that beyond just marketing and applying social tools to sales, customer service and supply chain. So it's taking that same success factor that happened on social media to the other processes in the business.

The reasons you would do that are to deepen client relationships and truly engage clients. Also, you want to innovate since innovation is a big driver here with crowdsourcing and collective intelligence. And then, there's talent management, with the entire Generation Y doing everything this way such that if you don't capitalize on that, the war for talent will be lost. Finally, there's operational efficiency, so there is cost savings to be had by leveraging social as well.

So not only does social business drive deeper relationships and increase revenue, it also reduces cost.

So long story short, social business has good ROI (returns on investment)?
Absolutely. To me, that's really important. If you're going to talk to business leaders and you're going to tell them that social is good for their business, you've got to be able to show that, right? You need to prove ROI and what's going to happen inside the business. It can't just be something for fun, though, I do think it's really fun.

Taking social and adding it into a process provides you with what I call monetization. Statistics from McKinsey, which polled thousands of clients, found that adding social to a customer service process on average increased your customer service satisfaction rating by 18 points. Royal Bank of Canada's (RBC) customer service rating went from number five to number one. They now use social analytics for customer service and have communities where they have experts constantly talking to their clients. They also set up an RBC advice center, not just with RBC experts but other financial experts who come in and provide advice online.

If you add social into your product development cycle and how you innovate, McKinsey showed that on average you would get new products to market 20 percent faster and your products would be more successful. A cement company based in Mexico, Cemex, leveraged social connections to drive innovation inside their four walls. Through social, their employees globally--from plants in Mexico, U.S. and China--brainstormed together for collective intelligence and implemented over 300 ideas.

McKinsey also said if you applied social to HR (human resources), you could decrease your costs by 10 percent. I'll give you our own example at IBM. All of us leverage social everyday inside IBM. If I want to send a presentation, I can share the file and don't have to e-mail it. So we actually reduced our e-mail costs by 32 percent last year from this overarching use of social. If I want to know where to find the best banking expert in Singapore, I can search on a community inside of IBM. We've increased the speed of finding someone and the right resource by up to 30 percent.

Wasn't IBM concerned that productivity could fall with a company-wide social push?
We actually had a council that got together to decide if we should block social networks or let employees participate in social networks. We're very number-based so we did a study with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and found that employees who interfaced with their social contacts at work brought in an additional US$700 per contact. And if one of those contacts was an executive, they brought in an additional US$7,000 per contact.

It was that data that made IBM say: "Let's unleash all the IBMers." Not because it was fun, not because it was going to raise morale, but because it was a good thing for IBM's bottom line. By us participating and being subject matter experts online, it was going to make an impact on the business.

The other proof point is if you look at the annual global best brand study from InterBrand, we've been No. 3 forever. Coca Cola was always the No. 1 brand, then Microsoft and then IBM. When we unleashed IBMers into the blogsphere, IBM overcame Microsoft in 2008 to be No. 2 and retained it for two consecutive years.

Would you say then that social was the secret sauce to IBM's ascension?
It's not the only thing. Social is not the magic bullet. There were also other things we did like Smarter Planet, but one of the major things the report called out when InterBrand ranked the brands was our social focus and going out in the blogsphere.

It said one major factor we went above Microsoft was that we made the company personal. We were sharing subject matter expertise and providing value in the marketplace. So what we're doing is really working. Social makes business personal. It gives a face to IBM. It was no longer just IBM. It was Sandy at IBM; a person at IBM. I love it so much. I'm always tweeting. I'm on Foursquare. I'm on Facebook, and I'll say let's take a picture so I can post it.

You said social is not a magic bullet. Since it's not a sure-win formula, what risks do companies need to take note of with social business?
The first is that many people believe social is about a technology, and it's really not. It's really about people and leveraging the technology in the workflow that you normally do. A lot of people miss that fact and we've had customers put up a community and then nobody comes. So it's really about understanding that this is not just a technology play; this is a people play where you need to pull in communities. It's not about how to deploy the technology.

We introduced something, called Adoption QuickStart, for social business to help companies figure out how to plan to get people to use the technology--to change the culture, if you would. Culture is one of the critical success factors. If you don't have that culture, you won't be successful.

The second big risk is risk itself, and how to manage and respond. A CEO once told me that, "Oh, we've opted out of social." I told him "you can't opt out of social", and took out my iPad and showed him a dashboard of all the places people were blogging about his company, including videos and Flickr pictures on his company, and personal comments about him that were made online.

This is the deal. You can't opt out of social; you can manage the risk. A lot of companies try to block their employees from participating at work but they're always going to do that at home. You can't stop customers or competitors from talking about you either, so the challenge is realizing that this is not about eliminating risks but about reducing the risks.

I always tell companies that they've got to expect the best, but be prepared for the worst. So you know what to do, how to listen, how to respond and when to respond the right way. At IBM, we had someone put up a page that said, "I love WebSphere". Thirty days later, someone had a "I hate WebSphere" page. It took us a year to work through that to make progress on it and we're not alone. I mean, every big company, the Fortune 500, everyone has had a social media disaster which depends on how they played it. You need to know that with social business, there can be problems, so you have to plan for how you mitigate the risks and how you make sure you handle it appropriately.

I think a lot of people think social is a magic black-box. It's not. It's a business thing. So you need to plan for it, just like you would any other business channel in the market. We advocate using social to make yourself more competitive, not to replace other things. So we don't ever advocate a company not do traditional things like phone customer service.

Do you ever find having to update your social networks 24-7 overwhelming?
It's addictive to me. It's part of who I am, so it's not so hard. When we took our two kids to Disneyland, my husband told me not to tweet, blog--nothing for the whole week. It was hard. I was shaking by the end, I had withdrawal symptoms, but I wanted to do it for my family.

I also saw that I had 17 messages in my cellphone from my blog and Twitter followers wanting to know if I had been hurt, if I was in the hospital or if I had died because usually I'm online a lot. I thought that was really interesting because it's like a friend, right? I think you develop patterns, my pattern is daily, but that doesn't have to be. You could do it weekly, monthly, and people would get used to you doing it that way, just like your friends.

The industry also recognized you as one of the top women in social media and technology more than once. How did you build your social presence since 2004?
I'll say it first that wasn't the original intent. The original intent was really to get IBM to be seen as an opinion leader, as a thought leader. I do my job well because I've become passionate about something in my job. In 2004, that was SOA. As I started to blog about SOA, it was just beginning as a trend so I was on the cusp of it. I developed a following of people who said: "Wow, she recognizes trends and that's one of her competitive advantages. We'll leverage that subject matter expertise moving forward." Then I got branded an IBM rebel because I posted that video on YouTube, and there was a lot of press about it because nobody from IBM had ever done that and it was a big deal at the time. I think that caused a little bit of intrigue around this person was and why she was doing this for IBM.

Then I became a Twitter user. I was one of the first people who jumped on it the first year it came out in 2006. So one of the things I did was tweet about the books I wrote. There was one on SOA, Web 2.0 and one book on social media and marketing. Of course, the first people who were on Twitter were marketers, and as I was a chief marketer, so I built the following based on giving subject matter advice to marketers.

I have my own blog now on WordPress. As I travel around the world, I have people who follow me and when I meet them in person, we form a relationship with each other and then it just grows. I have about 13,000 followers on Twitter, and 4.5 million readers on my blog. So it just becomes like a little family.

A number of industry accolades you have factored in gender. Do you think social business can help make the tech industry more appealing to women?
Because it's about collaboration, getting a consensus, listening to other people and not being in command and control, I do believe social is more conducive to women. In fact, if I look at the top people today in social, they're primarily women. And only just now that the trend is starting to take off do I see a lot of men jumping into the equation to leverage that.

So with the primary characteristics of social business: collaboration, multitasking between Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Foursquare, and how you keep up with it all and manage it into your day, I do think it will have a impact on making the industry more appealing to women.

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