At this time of year, there’s a natural inclination to look back over the highlights of the past 12 months as well as forward to the coming year.
I’ve just finished Marc Landsberg’s excellent and insightful Social Media Predictions for 2014 and would like to add a ninth: the increasing adoption of internal social media strategies by SMEs (small & medium enterprises).
Internal social networks have been around for some time. While they’re implemented in various ways, they can be divided into two distinct groups: “corporate” and “community.”
On the corporate side, you have internal networks designed to provide employees with the tools they need to communicate and collaborate more effectively. Communities, on the other hand, comprise users and experts whose combined experience can be used to solve problems. While this sounds a lot like forums — and indeed, it is in many ways — the main difference is that, in this context, communities are overseen and regulated by a company rather than being an independent group.
Corporate social networks are likely to remain a tool of big business. While there’s no denying their value, they require considerable investment. In addition, the chain of communications within small and medium-sized businesses is usually short enough not to require such complex solutions. Communities, on the other hand, can benefit companies of all sizes.
Establishing and managing any community takes time and effort. The upside can be exemplified by companies such as Dell, Microsoft, or SAP, who’ve used the tactic to overhaul heavily criticized customer services. They’ve done it by encouraging customers, business partners, and diverse experts to become involved in a community that answers its own questions. Little involvement is required from the company, beyond the provision of a platform and some permissions management.
There are also incentives for contributing individuals. On Microsoft’s Answers community, for example, top contributors are featured prominently. It’s an excellent way for people to enhance their professional credibility and drive business to their own sites. Of course, the company is getting accurate, timely customer support for minimal investment — certainly a fraction of what it would cost to employ people to deliver that level of responsiveness.
Although the positives are evident, most SMEs would have to give serious consideration to committing the necessary resources, both in human and financial terms. So, how can we make this cost-effective while maintaining the advantages? Isn’t it easier for companies simply to use Facebook?
It is easier perhaps, but while external social media has an important role to play, there are clear benefits to internalizing support/customer services. For one, businesses are not reliant on another platform — one over which they have very limited control. For another, they get the opportunity to engage with their customer through their own interface. That not only builds loyalty, it also provides other opportunities. It’s a more efficient way to promote other facets of the business and for making specific offers.
As to the actual mechanism, it can be as simple as a blog. There’s a very good example of this at Hypnosis Downloads, where the blog isn’t actually called the blog; it’s called the community. Calling it something doesn’t necessarily make it so — it needs backing up — but a different title on the website navigation does predispose people to adopt a particular attitude. This format gives people a chance to participate via comments, but the company doesn’t stop there. Scroll down the page, and you’ll see an offer for a free course. It’s followed by links to Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. The firm invites you to its own community, then shows you other social options.
Platforms come and go (remember Myspace?), but “social” as a concept is now part of our culture and will clearly be with us for the foreseeable future. Small and medium-sized businesses who play it smart will recognize that trend and, rather than relying on external media as a universal panacea, will blend social with support and empower customers to help each other.