The Social Media Payback

As headlines go, this one definitely got me thinking…

“The $1.3 Trillion Price Of Not Tweeting At Work” by Ryan Holmes (CEO of social media management tool Hootsuite) raised an interesting debate. Not because it was an article about the endorsement of Twitter use in the workplace (though that did raise an eyebrow), but because it attempted to discuss the perceived value unlocked by social media.

This is something companies have been grappling with ever since Twitter became a must-have online accessory– even Barack Obama has an account. And as the marketing power of social media continues to grow, B2B audiences have had to cast aside their doubt and started to understand just what makes social media so potent and invasive.

But how do you begin to put a value on something as nebulous as Twitter, or the social sphere more broadly?

According to an analysis of 4,200 companies by the McKinsey Global Institute, social technologies stand to unlock $900 billion to $1.3 trillion in value. No small amount. This value, the report claims, can be unlocked through “improved communications and collaboration within and across enterprises.” This is an interesting finding, not least because, as Holmes states, it challenges out-of-date perceptions that “social media is at best a soft PR tool and at worst a time sink for already distracted employees.”

What the report, and Holmes’ analysis, perhaps fails to address, however, is the risk/reward dynamic of using social media platforms like Twitter as a suitable form of communication for C-suite executives; and more importantly, the financial and/or reputation penalties companies may incur if executives get it wrong. Surely this needs to be offset against the “perceived value” of social media to provide a true picture of the returns social media can payout.

The case may be easily defended for executives leading huge FMCG or technology companies given the need to interface more obviously with consumers, but for non-consumer facing companies, there are significant reputation liabilities from partaking in channels like Twitter. If ill-equipped, companies and their senior executives can unwittingly serve to negatively impact fundamental assets like brand reputation, share price and shareholder sentiment.

As counselors to our clients, there are a number of steps we would advise taking first before foraying into the tumultuous world of social media:

  1. Ensure you have clear objectives and goals for social media – this will help define the social networks appropriate for you and ensure your time isn’t being wasted
  2. Have a defined strategy – Determine the tone of engagement, thematic priorities and how they will integrate with the overall communications and marketing plan
  3. Be clear about why you’re using social media – it’s not enough to simply want to play, you need clear wins and takeaways

And when you’re ready to engage, start small. Find out where your audience/influencers are online and tune in there. Begin by listening to the conversation and once you chart a course for increased participation, you’ll see the reward.

So, before the new media industry bashes the boardroom for proving to be “stubbornly resistant” to social media, I think we need to remind ourselves of the risk/reward dynamic and act accordingly. Social media is not without its risks and whilst C-suite executives can’t afford to be left behind, sometimes it pays to start steady and then turn up the volume.