This article begins a multipart series on the evolution of business as social.
I just returned from Dreamforce 2012 and have finally had a couple of days to process the last week. With over 90,000 registrants making it "the largest vendor-led technology conference ever," according to Salesforce Chairman and CEO Marc Benioff, there was certainly a lot to process.
After putting some time and distance between yourself and the event you are finally able to get over the sheer scale and spectacle and start asking “what was all that madness really about?” The most obvious answer lies with salesforce.com’s theme for this year’s event: Touch the Social Enterprise. Translation: how business can and should be social.
Benioff began promoting business as social nearly 5 years ago, right about the time I was earning my MBA in marketing. It was a fascinating time to earn a masters in marketing. Not only had the wheels just come off the nation's economy but social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were becoming impossible to ignore. Much like Benioff, all of us in my marketing classes realized social was big and that it would have a role to play in business. Yet, no one was quite sure how or what form it would take.
At the time, companies and academics alike were struggling to find a way to fit social into the traditional marketing paradigm. To most, social was simply another avenue to contact, market, and sell to customers. Naive as we were sitting in my classes, we knew enough to realize that social did not perfectly fit the existing marketing paradigm. Communities had to be nurtured and cultivated. Companies who simply used social as another channel for bombarding customers with advertisements were at a minimum simply ignored, and in some cases faced an intense backlash from the community. While we were convinced at the academic level that social had some kind of important role to play, businesses were just beginning to experiment with these emerging platforms. The majority of companies at the time had not embraced social and many believed that it was simply a fad that would fade as quickly as it had appeared.
Fast-forward 5 years and a lot has changed. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, 70% of companies are using some form of social technology.[i] Yet while companies have overwhelmingly accepted the premise that business must be social; it is also obvious that they are still struggling to determine exactly what that entails. Numerous surveys and studies bear out how companies continue to wrestle with the transition to social.
Much as we knew in my marketing classes, I believe most companies have come to realize that social is not purely a marketing channel. I applaud them for grasping that making business social does not simply entail creating a Facebook page and blasting ads to whoever “Likes” them. There is a sense that companies have embraced social as a space to engage on a more personal level and in doing so nurture a community that can provide valuable feedback.
In particular, very small and very large companies have benefitted from this dynamic. Small companies have learned to leverage social as a way to appear bigger than they truly are, by cultivating communities that are often intensely devoted to their brand. Conversely, very large companies have embraced social as a means to appear smaller than they are, humanizing what was previously perceived as a faceless corporation.
I have a sense that most attendees at the conference were still at this stage. They accept the premise that their business must be social, that it must engage in order to nurture and find value in their social communities, and they wish to learn how to do this better. However, this is simply playing a game of catch up. Conducting business in a manner that customers and competitors have come to expect. There was something much more radical on display at the conference and those who had their eyes open saw a radical transformation beginning to take shape on the horizon.
[i] McKinsey&Company, The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies, July 2012, http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/mgi/research/technology_and_innovation/the_social_economy