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For the past few months there seems to be growing buzz in social media (and communication) circles about employee advocacy. Companies like IBM, Target, Dell and Starbucks are sharing positive updates about their programs. Employee advocacy is clearly being pitched as the next big thing, and with good reason – as you can see later in this post. But despite the huge potential benefits to companies (and employees), staff advocacy programs are not a magic bullet, and not for every company. Like any other social media program, you need to be smart, realistic and deliberate about your approach. So I’ve developed a checklist of issues communication pros should carefully consider before they embark on an advocacy program.

Before I get to the checklist, let’s review a quick definition and look at the rationale for employee advocacy.

Employee advocacy is mobilizing trained employees to share company-approved content through employee-owned social channels to engage consumers, peers and family. (Italics are intentional, underlining critical elements of an advocacy program.) Advocates typically do not have social outreach as a formal part of their jobs (like subject matter experts who blog on the company’s behalf.) In essence, advocacy programs allow your employees to tell your company story.

As for the potential benefits of employee advocacy, they have been well documented and are backed by robust research and results. At its core employee advocacy helps amplify your marketing efforts, increasing the credibility, reach, audience and engagement well beyond levels for typical corporate outreach. This can translate into a boost in a company’s online profile, reputation and fan base. But the bigger payoff is through the potential for an increase in sales leads, revenue and profits. Enlisting your employees in an advocacy program can also help drive staff engagement, and given the stubbornly low engagement levels, that’s a very good thing.

Beyond the profile boost for your branded content – the explicit messages you are sharing – advocacy programs send powerful symbolic messages to both consumers and employees. For employees it says: your ideas matter, we trust you, we believe in our company and we support your personal brand. For customers it says: we’re part of the conversation, we live our values, we’re proud to tell our story, we trust and value our employees and we’re a leader.

So with all this promise, why shouldn’t companies start an employee advocacy right now…if they haven’t already? The short answer is they may not be ready. The list below provides a good template for readiness for an advocacy program.

  • Can you be authentic? – To be effective long-term, employee advocacy programs must authentically align with their culture, brand and employee interests. Authenticity is a central ethos of social media, with a premium on transparency and responsiveness. That means no hype, no fluff, no dishonesty and no hiding. Does your company’s marketing and PR content truly align with these values?
  • Is your culture toxic? – Very low employee morale or engagement is not a good foundation for an employee advocacy program. Ask yourself if your employees are likely to be positive and supportive as online ambassadors? If you’re not sure, you need to fix your culture before you think about advocacy. It’s true that many companies start with small pilot programs, but author/pundit Jay Baer said it best: “If your employees aren’t your biggest fans, you’ve got bigger problems than social media.”
  • Do you have social infrastructure? – Although there are good technology platforms that companies can easily adopt to manage their advocacy programs, companies with limited or no social capability and/or cultural acceptance will have a much steeper learning curve and a tougher time driving adoption. It’s also important to have internal systems that allow (even foster) multi-directional dialogue and content sharing.
  • Is your social media policy overly complex or restrictive? – No matter how well you design and execute your advocacy program, it will lag if your social media policies confuse or inhibit your employees.
  • Is your content compelling? – Perhaps the biggest barrier to a successful advocacy program is stale, self-serving content. Boring is bad. Leading companies use a formula that emphasizes industry and employee-generated content (multi-media of course) over typical marketing content. In other words, treat this as a conversation and not a pushy hard sell – which is anathema in social media.
  • Do you recognize and value your employees? – Good advocacy programs do a great job of recognizing and rewarding participants. (IBM even ranks the most prolific and popular advocates.) Do you already have credible programs in place to recognize your staff? Are you willing to make your employees the stars of the program?
  • Will you be social in good times and bad? – Any social media program requires sustained commitment to be credible and relevant, and advocacy programs are no exception. Shutting down during a crisis will create a backlash and erode your credibility. Furthermore, your staff will likely want to have their voice heard in tough times.
  • Are you good at listening? – Beyond the marketing boost, a big advantage of employee advocacy programs is the acquisition of content-related data and insights on your customers and employees. If you are not already in the mode of listen-learn-adapt, however, these benefits will be lost on you.
  • Do you trust your employees? – The most important litmus test of any advocacy program is whether you trust your employees. The best programs assume their employees have good intentions, and give their staff plenty of leeway – including choosing the role and content that fits their skills and interest. Programs that are dictatorial or stifle creativity will not be successful. Monitoring and discipline should be a last resort, not a default out of the gate.

It’s likely true that a good advocacy program can actually help fix many of the issues listed above. But I would suggest you start with a strong foundation. Walk before you go social, as it were.


Every year I watch with interest as new technology trends and tools are introduced and discussed. Beyond the impressive innovation and creativity – and yes, the occasional false start and tendency towards hype – my favored activity is digging into the expected and potential applications for marketing and communication disciplines.

The recent CES conference provides plenty of fodder for discussion. The coverage I’ve read and seen focuses on a number of exciting trends:

  • The Internet of everything – There is a marked trend towards having access to the internet from anywhere, anytime to do whatever we want. We can buy a product using only our iPhone, access the Web in our cars through voice commands, change the temperature of our home remotely, access (or record/save/share) content from a range of mobile devices…you get the drift. It’s all about connectivity across all platforms, allowing us to perform a huge number of activities that require, or are helped by, access to the internet.
  • Technology gets personal – With the boom in wearables, including sophisticated smart watches, you can now connect with your doctor remotely (with real-time sharing of your vital signs) and track every second of your life. Of course, this also allows you to share or use that data with a wide range of appliances and applications.
  • It’s still about content (and data) – This year’s CES had the usual improvements in dazzling ways to share digital content, ranging from virtual reality to curved ultra-high-definition TVs. On the data side, many of these applications require or encourage increased use of data – notably personal data from wearables. The trick is how to collect, organize, analyze and use all the information across all the potential access points.

You can read a few of the reviews of CES (featuring proposed headlines for the top news or trends) here, here and here.

So what does all this mean for communication professionals – if anything?

My first reaction is: with all this focus on internet everywhere connectivity, why do so many workplaces still have limited social and mobile capability? I see plenty of room for improvement for many organizations (except perhaps the usual suspects in the tech world) to deploy and mobilize a mobile strategy to inform, engage and support their employees. Forget high-def digital screens; many are still working to allow use of BYOD smartphones and tablets among their staff, while others are struggling to  ensure their intranets have responsive design for mobile users. One example of potential innovation is using smart cars for employees who spend most/all of their time on the road.

I also see a gap – or to be more positive, a major opportunity – around the trend of personalization, notably personalizing content and communication outreach inside organizations. This need not involve wearables like smart watches – which for many companies are likely years away – but can start with more agile, smarter segmentation of outreach and increased use of personalization on existing platforms like intranets or email networks. Most intranet platforms allow for considerable customization to allow users to focus on feeds and content that is most relevant to them. Communicators can also easily increase the ability for employees to opt into content, of feeds, that are most interesting to them rather than pushing mass distribution. Another simple improvement is making full use of so-called rich profile tools (like My Site) that allow employees to partially shape their own employee profile information.

I think the biggest contrast between the cutting-edge of CES and the average workplace is around data. Where one of the main topics at CES was around the push to collect, track and analyze all manner of data (like those smart watches) for many companies the very concept of data is nascent, limited mostly to cumbersome annual surveys, rudimentary tracking statistics and profile information. Some forward-thinking companies are showing progress in this area; for example, using real-time, regular online culture surveys, and using analysis to match employee engagement data with other metrics like customer satisfaction, engagement and productivity. Others, however, still struggle with old-school issues like updating staff directories (if they are even online) and integrating disparate, disconnected systems.

Ironically, all the hype and excitement from CES serves as a good reminder that it’s not all about technology. Though it’s become a well-worn truism, internal communications still has to include, if not feature, people in the communication mix – notably managers and leaders. But even here, the dazzling new technology offers fertile ground for innovation. Surely we can find better ways to inform and mobilize managers so they can in turn communicate with their teams more consistently and effectively. The real lesson for CES is that communication professionals should always be learning and listening; new ideas and improvements can come from anywhere.

I recently had the chance to have an informal video 

conversation with my good friend and e-learning guru Anders Gronstedt, CEO of The Gronstedt Group, about employee communication trends and opportunities. We cover a fair amount of ground on topics such as social media (inside the enterprise), staff training, employee engagement and emerging communication technology. One of the themes emerging from our conversation is that despite the hype and promise of social media, many companies are still hesitant to embrace new collaborative and social technology in the workplace. Please share your questions and comments.

Over the past few months I’ve attended (mostly virtually) a number of webinars and conferences focusing on social analytics and business intelligence. The latest was the Social Intelligence Summit put on by the W20 folks in London. (Here is a good blog post on the session.) I always come out of these sessions really impressed, even dazzled, by the advances in technology and intellectual leadership at the cutting edge of social business. The big lesson for me from these sessions is that the digital world is – with few exceptions – transparent, observable and measurable, and we’re coming up with increasingly smarter ways to find, package and use the digital data.

It’s difficult to pull highlights from the sheer volume of notable observations and insights, but here are a few I’ve noted:

  • There are now a wide range of sophisticated, user-friendly tools to help organizations monitor, aggregate, analyze and report activity on the Web – including multi-media discussions occurring on social platforms;
  • Analytics software can now provide complex, real-time data and insights that allow organizations to monitor and adapt their outreach 24/7;
  • Smart companies have gone well beyond listening and engagement and are now using the data to understand their audience (and how their brand is performing) and gain intelligence to drive their business;
  • Powerful analytics are being used well beyond the basic objectives of marketing – to drive brand or product awareness, consideration and hopefully purchase – and are now helping to guide activities as varied as health planning, product development and even predictive consumer research;
  • There seems to be a shift in what companies measure, with some focusing well beyond the usual reach/share of voice/tone to issues like identifying and mobilizing small groups of influential advocates, or determining highly customized and protean media channel strategies;
  • Some of the most interesting and advanced analytics work seeks to link social data and insights with specific business processes, transactions and outcomes – and using the insights to adapt and improve related business results.

My initial thought coming out of these events is euphoria (and humility) at the incredible innovation and intellectual sophistication in social media circles, and appreciation so much of this information and technology is readily available for all to use. But inevitably there is a thud when I return back to reality with my own observations, projects and clients. The reality is what I hear in these conferences and webinars still seems like rarified air in my consulting environment, with most clients or peers I see still grappling to understand and implement even the most rudimentary social platforms and strategy. If anything, I feel the gap between the analytics gurus and many of the corporate leaders (and communication pros) I work with is getting wider. In effect, I see a few pioneers with one foot in the future, but many others with one foot firmly placed in the past.

Perhaps the largest gap, and opportunity, is inside the organization. Most companies have at least some commitment to monitoring external social conversations and using the resulting data and insights to direct their social strategy, if not their broader business. But it’s much more infrequent to find companies that deploy social technology inside their enterprise and actually monitor, measure and analyze all the data generated by their employees. And leveraging Intranet traffic metrics or annual engagement surveys does not count as a real-time, robust analytics strategy.

Think of the potential outcomes if companies started to aggregate and interpret all the data on or from their workforce. Those kind of insights would not only help to track and drive engagement – the priority for many HR leaders and employee communication executives – but also provide valuable information to positively impact business outcomes such as productivity, retention, safety and even customer service. I’m personally hoping the analytics gap closes soon. Otherwise leaders and communication professionals are leaving a lot on the table.

This article by the folks at Hay Group argues that the next frontier for HR is harnessing “big data” to drive engagement with employees and improve talent management – the holy grail of many HR teams. The author suggests there is a stark contrast between the massive explosion of data and real-time analytics in fields like marketing and retail with the halting, uneven progress in HR. For many HR teams, the promise of big data is still more potential than reality – notably in the area of talent development and succession planning.

This assessment is in line with what I’ve seen over years of working closely with HR teams in a wide range of organizations. Despite the emergence of powerful tools and technology – and access to related data on employees and their performance – too many HR departments are still struggling with rudimentary challenges like creating clean, dynamic staff directories and are barely scratching the surface of data collection and analysis. Though in theory HR departments know a great deal about their employees, I haven’t seen (or heard of) many teams that are consistently collecting and analyzing data and using their insights to direct their policies and programs. (To be fair, the one area that seems to be evolving for the better is online performance management. ) In fact, it’s not rare for me to encounter HR teams still using written records or forms for many of their HR transactions – which obviously limits their ability to quickly collect, update and review the information.

Here are a few examples where big data – used to its full potential – could dramatically improve engagement and results beyond talent management:

  • Virtually all leading organizations conduct some sort of engagement or culture survey. Many of these surveys, however, remain superficial (often formulaic) annual surveys more useful for benchmarking than driving real change – including responsive program and policy adjustments – across the organization. Often these surveys are outsourced and the information is reviewed once to develop the final report, and never seen or used again. With all the enterprise social media platforms and real-time analytic tools available, would it not make sense to implement a more sustained, detailed and actionable research program with employees? At minimum, companies should track the content of internal conversations (on the intranet, blogs or other discussion platforms) with the same level of sophistication and follow-up as they do with external platforms. Listening should not be a one-time annual event, but a full-time contact sport.
  • Though some companies have mastered the art of knowledge management and make it easy for their teams to identify and contact peers for collaboration, others still struggle with relatively simple profile information that would allow employees across all levels to search for peers with specific skills, expertise or experience. Having this data readily available would also help leaders develop ad-hoc project teams and make informed staff assignments.
  • While consumers are repeatedly probed for their opinions and preferences on topics like communication and marketing, employees are not consistently asked about company communications. Though some companies conduct robust, actionable internal audits designed to assess the effectiveness of their communication efforts, many rely on piece-meal efforts that are often event-driven, sporadic and informal (qualitative.) Others don’t take full advantage of the built-in tracking devices on their intranets or corporate email tools, which can provide a rolling update on key metrics like traffic, page views and comments. This is a relatively easy fix that can help to make corporate communications much more relevant, resonant and impactful.
  • Though it’s not employee data per se, harnessing the ideas and collective wisdom of an internal audience can be a major driver of innovation and engagement. Companies like Dell and RBC use an internal crowd-sourcing platform to solicit and rank employee ideas on a range of topics, and incorporate the best suggestions in their operations and planning. Several vendors provide user-friendly platforms that do most of the work behind the scenes and allow users to focus on the ideas and the outcomes.

Much like IT’s reluctant acceptance of social media and new technology, I fear HR’s slow adoption of data collection and analytics will decrease its relevance and credibility in the coming years. The result will be the exact opposite of what the HR teams seek; prospective employees raised on social media, ubiquitous communication and all-digital content are unlikely to be impressed if the very team responsible for managing talent and fostering a dynamic culture is so clearly out of sync with social and technology trends.

I’ve been in the communication business a long time; now well into my second decade. Though I’ve witnessed many changes as the profession has evolved – most of them positive – there are also several industry characteristics that seem to stubbornly resist progress, almost like anachronisms. These aren’t so positive. Granted, this is just an unscientific tally from my personal perspective, but here is a list of communication quirks, or habits, that I’m surprised to still be seeing in the workplace:

  1. I’m amazed at the prominence of much-maligned PowerPoint as a communication tool. Even harsh critics seem to use the tool – with minor variations and embellishments – even as they attack the platform. Despite the introduction of plenty of new technology and platforms over the years – including more dynamic PP tools like Prezi and new visual options – the tried-and-true model remains ubiquitous.
  2. Interactive, digital 3-D environments like Second Life have a very low profile, and usage, despite the early hype and promise.  A few cutting-edge firms use the platforms for a wide range of communication activities (including secure, enterprise versions for internal use) but many pros seem to have little awareness or interest in this technology.
  3. Corporate communications content is almost devoid of humor, which is so prominent in our digital lives and a key ingredient in the best marketing and entertainment campaigns. I understand some topics are serious, but the PR industry seems to have a deathly fear of humor that fuels work that is needlessly boring and forgettable.
  4. I still see much more “push” communication – or talking to/at our audiences – than “pull” activities, where users can access information they want, when and where they want to.  Genuine conversation – which can be fostered through a range of new social media tools – is even more rare.
  5. Many companies still have no social media strategy. And I’m not talking about a proactive, intervention plan. Many don’t even have a defensive, passive social media program – with a basic employee policy and/or rudimentary monitoring.
  6. While the internet is truly global – a virtual community where distance and borders are irrelevant – many companies are still surprisingly insular and lack basic knowledge of global communication trends and differences. (One example: no awareness or recognition of the dominance of languages other than English on the Internet.)
  7. With apologies to my friends in IT… most IT departments in organizations remain a reluctant partner and barrier to progress, rather than a technology leader or facilitator. Yes, they have to consider costs and risks. But IT’s lack of attention to new technology and thin excuses (we can’t support that third-party platform) has made the function less relevant in many organizations.
  8. Finally, perhaps the most surprising…too many professionals still lead with a tactic at the expense of strategy. It’s the old shoot, fire, aim adage…with a checklist mentality focused on deliverables and activity and not on driving impactful, relevant objectives.  The new version – “can you set us up with a Facebook page” – is simply an updated variation of pushing out the old employee newsletter (without clear purpose or metrics.)

Like in any industry, it can be hard to change entrenched habits. And our bosses or clients – senior executives – are often the ones pushing back on untested, new approaches. But if we hope to position ourselves as smart, agile consultants we can’t fall back on excuses and inertia.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had to come up with some best practices on M&A communications. I thought I’d share these and invite any comments or questions.

Though circumstances around every M&A situation will vary, there are certain best practices that can help ensure communications is credible and effective, and help organizations to navigate cultural and operational integration. Essentially, organizations need to clearly explain the rationale and implications of the M&A, and lay out a clear roadmap to help staff understand their role going forward.  It’s also important to provide clarity around expected impact on staffing, culture and integration of workplace benefits and programs – these will be important concerns for most employees. Underlying the messaging, of course, there needs to be compelling reasons for employees to remain loyal and engaged through the transition period and beyond.

Here is a checklist of these key considerations:

  • Focus on the rationale – One of the critical drivers to employee acceptance of any change message is the underlying rationale…why do we need to change? Why now? Why this way? What are the fundamental reasons for the merger or acquisition? The logic and credibility of this core argument will determine the success of the integration effort.
  • Be timely – Many M&A situations raise questions about winners and losers – what brands will survive, what facilities might close, what leaders are promoted, etc. It’s important to confirm and communicate these facts in a timely, logical sequence to avoid uncertainty and anxiety among employees.  Though some decisions may not be popular with all staff groups, it’s preferable to communicate these changes promptly than risk a sustained malaise or inertia among staff.
  • What’s in it for me? – One of the critical elements required in any M&A communication effort is a clear indication of how employees across all regions and levels will benefit from the change. These benefits can be intangible (pride of global leadership, external recognition) or more practical (increased opportunity for career advancement, financial gains, increased security) but they need to be addressed prominently in the outreach. It won’t be good enough to demonstrate how the change is good for the company – you need to make the link between company gains and personal benefits.
  • Be candid about implications – Beyond making a compelling case for change, leaders also need to be candid about the more negative or contentious implications from the M&A – such as restructurings or layoffs.  Trying to avoid these tough issues will erode the credibility of the communication effort (and leadership team.)
  • What will not change? – With talk of change and integration, most employees will be very interested in confirming what won’t be changing, particularly with regard to their daily jobs and more esoteric issues like culture. Will there be change to the core values, for example, or compensation strategy. If that’s the case, that needs to be emphasized in the communication effort. Confirming these surviving pillars – whatever they are — will provide some sense of continuity and security to employees.
  • Dialogue vs. push – It’s particularly important during broad-scale change efforts (including M&As) to go beyond basic “push” communication tactics to fully engage employees in the topic and drive understanding and support. The communication effort should engage the employees in the change process through discussion and participation where appropriate, rather than just as recipients of the messages.  There should be ample opportunities for staff questions. If the old adage is you cannot over-communicate during times of change, I would adapt that to add you also can’t listen too much. It will also be critical to engage managers as active participants in the communication process. It goes without saying that social media provides rich opportunities to support this conversation, so communicators really have no excuse in this regard.
  • Plan beyond the announcement – Many companies leverage broad, multi-year internal marketing campaigns to direct and support post-merger integration. Thinking beyond the initial announcement helps package a complex set of messages into a compelling, logical thematic framework that can appeal to employees and provide a sense of continuity. A well crafted campaign can also help to address the points above – for example defining the vision but also reinforcing the “how” or culture – through engaging collateral and messaging.
  • Integrate internal and external messages – Whatever organizations do around M&A communication, they need to ensure their directives and messages are consistent across audiences, particularly related to marketing or staffing messages. Not everything communicated internally needs to be shared or identical to external messages (for example internal messages exhorting additional effort may not be relevant or appropriate for customers) but they need to be aligned and based on a common platform. In a similar vein, any communication plan needs to carefully coordinate outreach with employees from both companies involved.
  • Engage hearts and minds – While it’s critical to have solid empirical evidence to make the case for a merger or acquisition, too often leaders assume facts alone will sway the organization. To increase chances of success, communicators should ensure their change program appeals to the emotions of their employees. That can be done through the messaging, packaging and tactical plan. The best change programs have an almost visceral, personal element.
  • Devil in the details – As with any organizational directive, employees must understand how they need to do their jobs after the announcement…how they personally have to change. A critical element of any M&A program is clearly defining what employees at all levels and roles need to do differently – whether it’s behavior or process. If the scope of change is massive, the company will likely need to engage in substantial training and briefing programs.
  • Focus on customers – Despite an obvious emphasis on communicating with staff, it’s important to keep in mind employees need to remain productive and engaged during any transition period. Any communication program, therefore, needs to avoid becoming a major distraction and should concentrate on helping staff do their jobs despite all the changes.
  • Measure your progress – As with any communication effort, it’s important to monitor the reach and impact of any program in order to measure effectiveness and make necessary adjustments to messaging or tactics. In many M&A cases, organizations introduce additional metrics to ensure they are closely tracking their progress.

What do you think about these best practices?

I am reminded on a regular basis of the gap between organizations leading the adoption of social media – who are embracing and shaping new trends and applications – and others who still seem hesitant to devote any resources or intellectual capital to the discipline. The latest example comes through the concept of listening. While some organizations are (inexplicably) barely paying attention to online dialogue, others are working hard to improve their listening ability and using the information to shape their customer outreach, products and even their business operations. They are listening with a purpose – to use the insights and information they gather to truly engage with their customers, critics and fans online.

A recent blog post by Brian Solis details the progress of companies like Dell and Gatorade, who have expanded the concept of a community manager – the model for many companies engaged in social media – to that of a social media command center. This command center model not only provides a more robust, integrated structure to monitor, analyze and moderate online dialogue – which can be a challenge for organizations with a global profile and thousands of daily mentions – but also helps the team to internalize and respond to the various inputs.

There are numerous benefits to this enlightened approach. Solis writes about the Gatorade team, which is able to adjust online marketing campaigns in real-time based on analytics and user comments. Dell’s command center, meanwhile, provides a centralized platform to coordinate the outreach of its online ambassadors, expert authors and customer service activities. Issues and potential emerging PR problems are quickly identified and assessed. Various social media platforms and programs are integrated and managed without attention to traditional silos and functions. In other words… you listen, you learn, you react and you adapt.

As Solis describes it, Dell has become the model of a truly social and adaptive organization. And it’s important to note this goes beyond a defensive posture to respond and react to individual customer issues; the ultimate benefit from engagement with online communities is being able to harness their opinions, ideas and wisdom on topics well beyond sundry product or service complaints. Perhaps the biggest lesson from the actions or Dell and Gatorade is that existing organization models and concepts are no longer effective in this age of social media – which transcends traditional disciplines like marketing, IT, research and public relations. Even appointing a few individuals as community managers is a stop-gap measure. It will be interesting to see how other companies manage their social media activities in the coming months. My guess is the gap between leaders and laggards will only get wider.

The folks at AdAge posted an article recently on what they (and others) have described as the biggest social media campaign of the year: Coca-Cola’s global Expedition 206 project, where three “happiness ambassadors” travelled the world to document people’s search for happiness. Based on many measures, this campaign was a huge success, with over 650 million media impressions and huge global audiences across the campaign platforms – notably in relatively immature Coke markets like China. (It likely didn’t hurt that Coke’s social media properties are already among the most popular in the world.)

It’s interesting to note that some observers – including a few commenting on this article – aren’t sold on the success of the campaign. A few critics questioned whether the program had actually translated into a spike in sales, arguing increased awareness or positive buzz was a soft, meaningless measure of ROI. Others claimed they had never heard of the campaign, suggesting the ratings might be hype.

But beyond the debate about evaluating success – which is a big enough topic for another post altogether – I see a few important lessons for all communication/marketing professionals in this campaign:

  • Social media is about people and local markets – The Coke folks developed the campaign blueprint at HQ and leveraged a core team to coordinate the massive undertaking, but used a decentralized approach where local teams (and the personable ambassadors) had flexibility to implement and customize the outreach. It’s also worth noting the prevalence of informal video in this program – a popular and compelling format that is too often ignored in many corporate programs;
  • Be open to learning and adapting along the way – The Coke team freely admits they were flying blind on many aspects of this program, and leveraged the insights and feedback along the way to adjust the plan;
  • Dont’ wait for things to be perfect – It might surprise some that even a social media leader like Coke launched this campaign knowing their teams would have to stretch to implement the campaign (for example, requiring a higher level of coordination across marcom groups and forcing many local teams to become more familiar with social media). Sometimes a campaign is the impetus for organizations to raise their game and overhaul technology and/or process…and that’s not a bad thing;
  • Face-to-face still matters – Coke used a wide range of virtual activities in this campaign, but complemented the robust online tactics with critical local meetings and testimony by the ambassadors, which in turn generated much of the digital content. The heart of this campaign – as it were – was the personal friendships and outreach of the 3 ambassadors on the ground;
  • Engage partners in relevant communities – The ambassadors reached out to local bloggers, fans and reporters to support their local outreach and extend local word-of-mouth;
  • Be creative – This campaign went well beyond the typical, relatively safe Facebook and Twitter outposts favored by more timid organizations. The result was a campaign that was bold in scope and also much more interesting and lasting in terms of content and coverage.

These lessons were similar to what I experienced at Dell as part of the core team that developed and launched the social media programs several years ago. There were many things we didn’t know when we started, but we never would have learned – or made any progress – if we had waited for the perfect situation. Our focus was on getting the basics right – our strategy, objectives and key principles – but positioned our efforts as a constant beta test…constantly assessing, innovating and improving. Like with Coke, our efforts forced the issue on many fronts (for example the introduction of new technology and upgrades in infrastructure.)

The frenetic, unpredictable pace of evolution in social media doesn’t allow for ponderous, diffident planning more common even a few years ago. Yes, planning and strategic rigor still matter, but they shouldn’t get in the way of great ideas.

Many discussions about social media inevitably turn to the issue of ROI – or how you can measure impact and, more specifically, if there is empirical evidence (or reliable projections) that social media can boost hard business metrics like productivity, revenue and profits. While I’ve heard of a few isolated success stories (like Dell’s profits through Twitter promotions) I haven’t seen much consensus on a measurable, widespread impact – particularly related to consumer activities. In fact, there are still pockets of skeptics who deny social media can add directly to the bottom line. (Conversely, some social media fans/users suggest focusing on finding a bullet-proof ROI link is missing the point, since social media is more about conversation and engagement than short-term returns.)

Well, the folks at McKinsey – who could never be accused of using fuzzy math – recently came out with a study that suggests companies who make extensive use of the Web 2.0 technology have higher returns and margins than their peers. [FYI: you may have to subscribe to McKinsey to view the full report.] What’s telling about the findings is that McKinsey found that organizations that were highly networked – meaning they leveraged collaborative technology inside the enterprise as well as with external partners – were most likely to be market leaders (and gainers) and benefit from higher margins. There is plenty of room for progress, however; only 3 percent of survey respondents were defined as fully networked enterprises – with robust social media engagement across audiences. McKinsey also details the trend towards increasing use of social media inside the enterprise, and the shift beyond the more established business-to-consumer activities. The authors suggest this trend will exacerbate a gap between the forward-thinking organizations (who are gaining measurable benefits) and those reluctant to fully engage the collaborative technology.

A closer look at the findings shows that respondents to the global survey defined a wide range of “measurable benefits” – which confirms that most organizations are looking well beyond core metrics like profit-and-loss for evidence of ROI. But the purported benefits are by no means soft, in corporate parlance. Take a look at the top 4 benefits – based on percentage of respondents whose companies achieved benefits from use of Web 2.0 technologies – across the main categories:

Internal Purposes

  • Increase speed of access to knowledge (77% of respondents)
  • Reduce communication costs (60%)
  • Increase speed of access to internal experts (52%)
  • Decrease travel costs (44%)

Consumer Purposes

  • Increase effectiveness of marketing (awareness, consideration, conversion & loyalty) (63%)
  • Increase customer satisfaction (50%)
  • Reduce marketing costs (45%)
  • Reduce support costs (35%)

External Partners/Suppliers

  • Increase speed of access to knowledge (57%)
  • Reduce communication costs (53%)
  • Increase satisfaction of partners (45%)
  • Increase speed of access to external experts (40%)

How can companies join the networked high flyers described in this survey? Here are suggestions from the McKinsey study:

  • Integrate the use of Web 2.0 into employees’ day-to-day work activities. What’s in the work flow is what gets used by employees and what leads to benefits.
  • Continue to drive adoption and usage. Benefits appear to be limited without a base level of adoption and usage.
  • Break down the barriers to organizational change. Fully networked organizations appear to have more fluid information flows, deploy talent more flexibly to deal with problems, and allow employees lower in the corporate hierarchy to make decisions.
  • Apply Web 2.0 technologies to interactions with customers, business partners, and employees. Fully networked organizations can achieve the highest levels of self-reported benefits in all types of interactions

As someone who spends a great deal of my time working with companies on internal issues, I’m glad to get this additional ammunition to help convince companies their greatest potential to leverage social media may be inside the organization. McKinsey’s describes these progressive internally networked organizations as cultures where “information is shared more readily and less hierarchically, collaboration across organizational silos is more common, and tasks are more often tackled in a project-based fashion.” Buried in this description is the root of the problem; the reality is that some companies are still not willing to foster this type of decentralized, fluid communication environment. To some, information is still power…and they don’t want to give it up.