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One of the ongoing challenges of my consulting work the past few years has been to convince clients to engage their employees in their external social media efforts. The argument for doing this is very solid – see this excellent post by Dion Hinchliffe of Dachis Group on the benefits and requirements of using employee advocates through social media. Perhaps the best argument for activating employees is that they are highly trusted by consumers and customers alike. So why is this not happening more often?

In my experience there are several answers to this question. For one thing, many organizations are still reluctant to engage in any social media activity – external or within the enterprise – so it’s understandable that their employee outreach strategy would also be nascent. Others are extremely concerned about rogue employees who can compromise the reputation of the company in one tweet or YouTube video, and can bring up several recent examples to support their position. A surprising number of companies (from my experience) prefer to wait and see, despite the fact they know their employees are already active on social media platforms (such as unofficial company Facebook pages) without the benefit of clear direction, guidelines or training. Companies react differently to these unsanctioned sites and posts – some prefer to turn a blind eye, while others try to quell the comments through punishment and/or additional training. I’ve also seem the other extreme, where cherry-picked employee advocates stray too much into cheerleading (think obnoxious, repetitive Twitter hype) and lose the authenticity and credibility their role demands.

But perhaps the biggest reason – and unspoken truth – is that some company environments are poisoned by distrust, disillusionment and woeful lack of engagement. If many of your employees are unhappy and discouraged, does it make sense to give them full license to represent the company with consumers and customers? Of course, the answer is no. Or at least, not all in one shot. These companies need to fix their workplace culture and foster engagement and collaboration within their walls before they think about activating their staff on social media platforms. (In fact, disgruntled employees can damage a company’s reputation through their actions and comments whether or not they are using social media.) But that’s not an excuse for complete inaction. A social media strategy can allow for a smaller team of ambassadors at the outset, who are selected for specific roles and expertise, provided ample direction and support and highly trained. Real-time monitoring is also critical, not only to assess impact with consumers but also to identify potential issues and ensure ambassadors don’t operate outside the guidelines.

Ultimately, companies need to realize their employees represent them – whether formally or otherwise – and will often be active on social media platforms with or without formal guidance or consent. The best approach is developing a realistic plan to ensure employees are informed, directed, trained and supported to represent the company in a positive light. Using a proactive strategy will allow companies to deploy their best marketing and PR asset – their team members.

Well, another one bites the dust. Add one more name to the long list of organizations undone by poor decisions and even worse crisis management. In the space of one week the Susan G. Komen Foundation – famous for being the brand behind the ubiquitous pink campaign against Breast Cancer – has done serious, perhaps irreparable damage, to its reputation and brand. Check out this article in Fast Company for a good summary of the imbroglio.

The Komen leadership team did so many things wrong it’s difficult to know where to start. Let me try…

  • Think before you act – First and foremost, if you are going to make a policy decision that will have a big impact on your operations, make sure there is a solid rationale behind the change. The argument used by Komen for the suspension of payments to Planned Parenthood – that changes were dictated by a new policy prohibiting organizations under investigation from funding – appeared disingenuous. Buried in the policy legalese – our desire was to fulfill our fiduciary duty to our donors by not funding grant applications made by organizations under investigation – is the reality that the “investigation” in question was seen by most as a partisan witch-hunt by one anti-abortion member of Congress. Observers were further led to believe the dramatic impact of this policy on Planned Parenthood was a mere coincidence.
  • Don’t try to bury the story – The story of the policy change broke with an article by Associated Press, and quickly picked up steam on Twitter and Facebook before becoming a top story for traditional media outlets. The Komen team didn’t announce the policy broadly – presumably trying a stealth approach – preferring to inform it’s various affiliates directly. (By all accounts Planned Parenthood was not informed in advance of the change.) When the story broke Komen leaders were slow to react, and their initial responses were brief, formal and defensive. Some PR observers suggest the battle was lost in those initial 24-hours, when Planned Parenthood mobilized its fans and led a smart, vocal PR counter-offensive.
  • Don’t ignore social media – The failure of the Komen team to acknowledge, and adequately respond to, the uproar on social networks is seen by many as the biggest failure in their crisis management strategy. The outrage was swift, viral and overwhelmingly negative. Many of my female “friends” on Facebook, some big supporters of Komen over the years, expressed their disappointment and disavowal. The Komen team did use Twitter for updates (largely repeating their canned messages) but anchored their response through more traditional “push” channels like written statements and YouTube videos. To make matters worse, they were accused of scrubbing the most negative responses from their branded Facebook pages and websites.
  • Remember who you are – Somewhere along the way it appears the Komen team forgot they were a charity whose stated purpose was promoting the health of women – including poor women – and that they are a non-profit dependent on their supporters and fans for revenue. Their funding decision – at best an awkward decision based on dubious legal reasons – and their subsequent response seemed totally at odds with the feel-good, compassionate image of their brand. Whatever the merit of their decision, the impact of cutting off thousands of women from low-cost access to breast screening was anathema to their stated mission.
  • Listen to others, not your own story – One lesson that Karen Brinker and team may still not have learned is that stubbornly repeating an argument that few believe is not courageous, it’s counter-productive. In fact, the Komen team continued their defensive, almost defiant stance even as several officials resigned in protest – surely not a good sign. Even after reversing it’s decision, Komen tweets and comments stubbornly continued to defend their original decision and argue politics was never a factor. The battle had been lost, but the lesson was not learned.
  • Back what you say – The Komen team never provided solid evidence to counter the strong circumstantial evidence, supported by claims from former staffers, that the reason for their policy change was political. It didn’t help that previous statements and recent tweets by new policy VP Karen Handel made it clear she was an ardent critic of Planned Parenthood.
  • Don’t treat people as idiots – Perhaps the most egregious error by the Komen team in this crisis is their attempt to position the response to the policy change as positive, even as any casual observer could see the overwhelmingly negative social media reaction and related media coverage. This blatant attempt at spin was as misguided and incredulous as it was ineffective.
  • Build and protect your goodwill – Another potential factor in the quick fall from grace for the Komen organization was that its goodwill may have eroded over the past few years due to some very uncharitable behavior – including its hard-ball legal stance against any hint of copyright infringement. The brittle, arrogant demeanor of Komen founder – and main spokesperson – Karen Brinker probably didn’t help their cause.

Of course, Komen did have the wisdom to change their decision – albeit belatedly and without totally letting go of their delusional narrative. In fact, they continue to be defensive about the “incorrect presumption” behind their ill-advised policy, and pointedly did not promise to renew the cancelled grants to Planned Parenthood.

Universal McCann’s latest “Wave” global report – which they claim is the longest running and largest study dedicated to social media – provides an essential statistical benchmark on the evolution of social media. The key findings this year are no surprise: the survey of thousands of global internet users confirms that social media remains an explosive, dynamic phenomenon that is changing how we interact, think, feel and behave. This particular study focuses on how brands are engaging with consumers in social media.

The big takeaway from this study is that data suggests there is huge demand for a more social, interactive relationship with brands online. Almost half of active internet users – who collectively visit social networks 1.5 billion times every day – are joining brand communities. This is occurring despite a steady decline of users visiting “official” company websites and the prominence of peer-to-peer brand recommendations. In short, consumers increasingly want to engage with brands in social media, but on the right terms. The key, according to the report authors, is to identify the kind of relationship users want with brands, and to create corresponding social media programs. Put another way, companies must understand the needs and motivations of consumers as a critical first step in their social media planning. The catch is that these needs differ widely by country, topic (or category) and audience – so brands should seek granular information on their target consumers to detail their habits and preferences. This approach means selecting the platform or network comes last, not first. And that doesn’t mean returning to the hard sell, which still remains anathema to many internet consumers.

Here are other highlights of the survey:

  • Social networks have become more embedded in our everyday lives as the range of online activities and frequency of usage continues to increase;
  • Social media use varies widely depending on geography and user demographics;
  • Users have a wide range of motives for accessing web platforms, and select different platforms for different purposes. (Again these motives vary widely by geography.)
  • Though penetration among 16-24 year olds remains highest, the 25-34 age bracket has seen the biggest jump in usage (from 52% to 70% in 3 years);
  • Social networks have become the main forum for social interaction, even bypassing face-to-face contact;
  • Content sharing continues to be popular, though it’s now occurring on a wider range of platforms;
  • Personal blogs and forums are losing some traction, but are also becoming more specialized and targeted. Micro-blogging, on the other hand, has quickly grown into a mass market activity;
  • There’s been a significant shift to accessing social media through mobile devices and applications;
  • On the brand front, primary reasons for joining brand communities (usually on social networks) include learning about the brand/product, getting advance news on products, and gaining access to free content.
The data in this study provides helpful context, and suggests there is great opportunity for brands to engage with consumers online. But the study also confirms the importance of doing your homework to understand the needs and habits of your target consumer, or audience. That’s not necessarily a new approach, but it appears to be more relevant than ever in the changing web environment.

According to a recent report – aptly named the Intranet 2.0 Global Study – the use of social tools on corporate intranets has boomed…sort of. The findings suggest most global organizations have at least one social tool on their intranet (in the majority of cases a blog platform), but a fully integrated “social intranet” – with a range of tools that are widely available and prominently featured – is still quite rare. (Thanks to my friends at Prescient Digital in Toronto for their post on the study.)

This finding is consistent with my professional experience in recent years. Even as social media use (and hype) explodes, companies are still reluctant to leverage their intranet to full advantage as a social media hub. In theory, it should be relatively easy to leverage existing intranet platforms – many of which come with built-in social tools and/or options. Some CMS platforms are like social media swiss army knives – with a full array of 2.0 bells and whistles. But most intranets are big, expensive systems and many companies seem unwilling to invest in adjustments or new technology. Changes in strategy and technology are often laborious. The alternative, for some companies, is to leverage the plethora of available cloud options – which can satisfy virtually every social media need, ranging from the basics (micro blogging, staff profiles) to the more esoteric (crowd-sourcing.) Just today, I read about the upgraded Chatter platform – which seems to provide a robust enterprise social media toolkit.

Each of these approaches has obvious benefits – and some challenges – but neither seems to have much traction inside most companies. Why not? Well, I would suggest the inherent risk-aversion of IT departments is still a big factor, as are cultural inertia, lack of leadership support and funding considerations.

Other studies – including this Engagement Survey by the IABC – suggest the issue goes beyond the intranet, and reflects a broader ambivalence about using social media within the enterprise. In the 2010 IABC report, the intranet was the second most popular communication channel after email – almost ubiquitous across the corporate world. But only 12% of the same respondents said they used social media tools (on the intranet or otherwise.) Digging a little deeper, the findings suggest a limited use of specific tools:

  • Discussion boards – 32%
  • Internal social networks – 30%
  • Wikis – 26%
  • Yammer – 10 %

[I’m not listing blogs since there was no obvious break-down of internal vs. external use.]

Perhaps the most telling statistic in the whole survey – over 60% of top executives are not participating in any internal social media tools. Until that changes, change will be slow to come – no matter what technology solution is being considered.

The past couple of weeks has been pretty much business as usual in the exciting world of communication technology: product innovations (e.g. Google’s cool new instant search function or Apple’s new iPod line); new applications with huge potential (e.g. alliance of Chatter with Seesmic social platforms); competitive jockeying pushing companies to building a better “mousetrap” (e.g. Google joining foursquare and others in the location game). Outside corporate firewalls, it’s a fascinating cycle of restless creativity, new technology, cutthroat competition and strategic soul-searching…with huge benefits for consumers and businesses eager to leverage the new technology. It’s easier (and more exciting) than ever for individuals – and even networks of peers or colleagues – to stay informed, communicate, share ideas or advice, be productive…or just be entertained.

The contrast between this fertile, dynamic environment and life behind corporate firewalls is striking – and the gap may be getting bigger. While it’s true that some companies (particularly smaller organizations or the usual suspects in the technology field) are forward-thinking and courageous when it comes to technology, which translates into integrated social media programs that seek to bridge the potential divide between external and internal programs, based on my personal experience most are operating in a world closer to 1984 than 2010. (I’m going on personal experience and anecdotal data here…It’s tough to find updated stats that differentiate social media within the Enterprise from external activities, but this report is useful context.) When I was at Dell, for example, they intentionally leveraged their external platforms (notably Direct2Dell blog and IdeaStorm crowd-sourcing) with their PR and customer service systems within the organization, ensuring that the feedback and issues raised in the blogosphere were incorporated and addressed within the organization. The bridge between external and internal was wide open, so to speak.

Most of what I’ve seen, alas, is far from this ideal. Forget trying to find companies that use location-based applications within the firewall, for example, which would seem to offer huge potential to make internal communication more local and relevant. Many companies are still working on (or thinking about) basic networking tools or blogging platforms – likely still engaged in discussions about risk vs. reward. And in terms of technology devices, I can count on one hand companies that use smart phones or advanced portable devices (like the iPad or netbooks) with their staff – at least beyond senior executives – which seriously hampers their ability to leverage the advancements in mobility, wireless ubiquity and delivery of rich content. For most organizations, the intranet is their trojan horse for communication technology inside the firewall – for better or for worse. (Check out this blog post for another perspective on Enterprise 2.0 progress.) Some are able to introduce and use pretty advanced tools through new CMS platforms (the latest version of SharePoint has enough features to fulfill most basic networking and collaboration needs), but dramatic changes typically occur when companies get plug-and-play enterprise platforms that introduce new capabilities – such as Jive, Yammer or BrightIdea. And even with companies dabbling in pretty advanced technology, the odds are high that their internal efforts are lagging behind their marketing or PR activities (and tools) and/or not fully aligned.

The reasons for this reluctance and hesitation have been well covered – resources, legal risk, culture, inertia, ignorance – and there is merit to some of these explanations. And I would never advocate just jumping in head first…introducing technology for its own sake, without a robust strategy and business imperative. But the greater risk to organizations is that their archaic internal communication programs become so detached from external progress than they become totally irrelevant. And it won’t be just the younger workers – raised in an ecosystem on information on demand and advanced social media – who will get disillusioned and disinterested. It’s time for internal communication leaders and professional to start with a blank slate to (with apologies to Robin Williams) seize the day and utilize the incredible technological power inherent in the new devices and programs.

The recent announcement that Google Wave is being abandoned is a pointed reminder that technical firepower is not enough to drive customer adoption. In fact, sometimes the best products or applications are still-born due to their complexity and range of capabilities. This blog post is a good autopsy of Wave’s demise.

The theory behind Wave was solid – ostensibly providing an integrated (and free) platform for real-time collaboration and networking. But the reality was that it was too much for most consumers to bite off. I tried Google Wave and actually used it on several client projects…or more accurately I used a couple of small features in the platform (notably using an email “wave” to track online comments.) But I found it very difficult to understand – despite the Google video demos and blog posts – and quickly gave up on learning how to use the numerous features. With a plethora of similar choices (and new applications launching seemingly every few weeks) my peers and I eventually all stopped using the tool. It didn’t help that virtually nobody we worked with used it, and even fewer could tell us how it actually worked. And that’s really the secret to success or failure with new technology.

It’s long been an axiom that most of use have only a faint understanding of how to properly use technology – think of the story (perhaps apocryphal) that the majority of us only use about 10% of the capability of popular tools like Outlook – but we’ll use the tools if they provide obvious benefits and are relatively easy to adopt. And for successful technology you can always find somebody who can provide an expert hand. Wave didn’t have that entry-level of use, and the Google folks never clearly articulated the value proposition for the vast majority of us who aren’t engineers or geeks.

Some folks have been hard on Google and see this latest failure as another example of hubris, or at least a serious lack of consumer insight. But Google has long followed its own technology muse and will likely continue to throw innovative products at the wall to see what sticks. And their proactive approach to product introductions – try to anticipate demand rather than follow the pack – has some merit. But it may be time for them to think less like an engineering company and more like a consumer marketing organization. Google’s own blog post announcing Wave’s shuttering suggests they’ve taken this lesson to heart. If not, the predictions of Facebook’s increasing dominance of the Internet (with 500 million users and counting) may become a reality.

The remaining skeptics who argue social media is more a fad than reality should check out a recent study by Nielsen, which provides more empirical evidence that social networking has become a very popular online activity.

According to the study, Americans spend nearly a quarter of their time online on social networking sites and blogs, up from 15.8 percent just a year ago (a whopping 43 percent increase.) Not surprisingly, games are also a favorite activity – a fact which will probably give fuel to grumpy executives that argue social media is more fun than substance. (I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.) Despite falling in popularity, email remains a popular activity (third most popular) though there are signs more surfers are using tools on social networks to communicate rather than separate emails. Another interesting statistic is the notable boost in time watching videos, though the activity remains in 6th position in terms of time spent online.

Online use (for U.S. users) on mobile devices paints a somewhat different picture – with email being the dominant activity, followed by access to Web portals (e.g. Yahoo) and social networks. This likely reflects the prevalence of corporate use for mobile devices.

A recent study on UK online habits confirms a similar trend over the pond, with Web use up almost 70% since 2007 and social media activities increasing 23%.

Though this study had no real surprises, it confirms the Web is a fluid, crowded media environment that offers multiple choices for users. For marketers and communicators, there is plenty of potential but no easy answers. Getting the attention and sustained interest of users remains a huge challenge.

A recent study of Twitter by digital agency 360i – which tracked usage by big brands for 6 months – suggests many organizations are still using Twitter to push information rather than engaging in sustained, targeted conversations with customers. Check out this blog post on the study.

It’s no surprise that brands are flocking to Twitter, which according to 360i has over 100 million regular users posting an average 65 million tweets a day. But as this study makes clear, many corporations still fail to understand the dynamics and marketing potential of the platform. For one, it’s a primarily consumer-driven networking platform – with over 90% of tweets coming from individual consumers. Only 12% of tweets even mention a brand (and of those the most frequently cited are Twitter, Apple and Google.) Second, Twitter remains an amazing un-filtered forum for listening and responding to customers. Yet “only 12% of all marketer tweets demonstrate active dialogue with consumers, signifying that most of them aren’t tapping Twitter’s full potential. [And] only 1% of consumer tweets that mention a brand are part of a conversation with that brand.”

From what I’ve seen and heard, there are several reasons for this limited dialogue by brands:

  • Companies are still trying to use traditional “push” marketing or PR strategies in the new social media environment
  • Organizations are reluctant to invest the resources required to properly manage their social media presence (for example assigning staff to monitor and respond to relevant threads or posts)
  • Few organizations have a process in place to actually identify and/or address brand questions, comments or complaints raised on Twitter
  • Companies are still paranoid of the potential risk (real or imagined) of candid, informal online conversation

This study suggests many corporate or marketing professionals are not utilizing Twitter to its full potential. The story is familiar: many organizations are now dabbling in social media, but few are doing what they can or should.

There’s been plenty of coverage and commentery over the BP oil spill crisis and subsequent public relations fiasco. One of the things I’ve found most interesting – though not surprising – is the discovery that the BP crisis management plan was riddled with errors and outdated information.

Many of the reports on this flawed plan, like this blog post, focused on the factual errors and obvious lack of due diligence in keeping the plan accurate and relevant. That is, sadly, true of many crisis plans I’ve seen over the years. They are created – sometimes at great expense – but quickly left to gather the proverbial dust and remain detached from daily planning or operations. What surprised me about the BP plan is that it failed both on the business continuity side and the more arcane reputation front. Many companies have decent plans in place to guide operational decisions and contingency steps to sustain operations and manage emergencies. But far fewer – in my experience – have thought through the more nuanced decision-making process related to reputation and media issues. (The celebrated Tylenol case, of course, demonstrated the perfect mix of core values and operational directives.) Even if BP had a better reaction to the spill itself, I suspect it still would have badly bungled the media and marketing response. In fact, in some measure CEO Tony Hayward did things by the book – be front-and-center, be candid and informal, take responsibility…and so on. Unfortunately, he was so badly off script he mostly alienated and confused viewers. And BP made so many off-key decisions in their communication response (notably stubbornly under-estimating the flow of oil) they eroded their latent credibility early in the process.

There are many lessons here for companies eager to avoid a PR disaster in the wake of a business disaster – a double-dip, if you will. One is to develop a robust, dynamic crisis plan that is fully integrated into the operations of the organization. Two is to ensure the plan addresses communication issues like values, decision-making criteria, messaging and positioning.

For several years I’ve wondered why most of the buzz and activity around social media focused on the external aspects – like marketing and customer service. I suppose it makes sense that attention would initially gravitate to critical activities like selling and listening  to customers – and the endless treadmill of appealing new technology and Web applications designed to engage consumers. But I was befuddled at the more hesitant adoption of social media inside the enterprise, where social media can provide immeasurable benefits to communication, collaboration and productivity. As this recent article suggests, that imbalance may finally be changing.

As noted, the emergence of big technology players like Microsoft (via Sharepoint 2010) and IBM (via Lotus Connections)  in this space is likely to turbo-charge momentum for social media in office cubicles. Smaller players ranging from Socialtext to Yammer and Jive already provide a rich menu of online social applications – like personal profile pages, staff networks, wikis, collaboration tools and micro-blogs. But more, bigger players are now offering comprehensive social platforms that more easily integrate into the organization’s technology ecosystem. I have seen some of the trends first-hand, with clients introducing social media tools using a “trojan horse” strategy through an intranet rebuild using  Sharepoint – complete with internal blog, profile pages and wikis – and others using IBM’s own social media experiments (and success stories) as blueprints for change.

This technology shift seems to reinforce the change in perception from the social enterprise being something fun and optional to something productive and strategic. That said, I would argue there are several reasons for this momentum shift beyond the increased involvement of the technology giants:

  • Staff are asking for it – as younger, tech-savvy workers enter the workforce the demand for social media tools inside organizations has become an unstoppable tide and price-of-entry for top talent;
  • IT is more comfortable – now that known partners like IBM, Microsoft and are becoming  more involved in this space, IT departments (not typically known for their risk-taking mentality) are becoming more supportive and open to experimentation;
  • Piggy-backing on the intranet – earlier enterprise applications were often introduced outside the intranet (or even outside firewalls using cloud software), but more options are now available that fully integrate with corporate intranets – which typically benefit from IT and executive support and robust budgets;
  • Stronger business case – CEO’s focused on ROI and proof-of-concept can be comforted by growing anecdotal and empirical evidence that suggests social media in the enterprise has a positive impact on a range of business goals (notably employee productivity);
  • Eroding firewalls – organizations with ambitious social media outreach programs are finding out it’s difficult – if not illogical – to foster external conversations with consumers and/or pundits while limiting how much their  employees can participate in the same digital platforms, or even talk with each other. Many are now seeing  the wisdom of a fully integrated, multi-audience social media strategy that leverages employees as a key audience, as well as potential messengers and advocates.