Yesterday I joined Steve Lamb, Neville Hobson and a host of speakers at Dell’s B2B Social Media Huddle event. It’s always a bit nerve wracking taking to the stage after Neville and Steve, but good for getting the mental juices going – this time about making the business case for social media.

Business cases discussions seem to have narrowed down to ROI these days. The ROI of social media is a particularly hot topic – often accompanied by lots of hot air too. I like Trey Pennington’s take on the issue and personally I’m not sure that ROI is the right question – it’s far too easy to manipulate - Opportunity cost is a bigger factor in most business cases.

All that said, how do you make the business case? Here are my slides (kindly uploaded to slideshare by @KerryatDell), and some notes after them…
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Once upon-a-time…

Just as there is a huge amount of excitement about social media, there is also a huge amount of cynicism. Neither is fully justified or nor fully misplaced. Many senior execs are simply terrified by a huge unknown affecting their world, and fear is not the bed fellow of rational decision making.

We’ve been here before of course, the telephone was met with healthy scepticism from both the press and businesses. Older folks – how much trouble did I get into for calling us over 35′s old? – will remember the disbelief and dismissal that accompanied the arrival of business Internet use. I even remember leaving a company because I couldn’t convince them we needed a web site – a move that lead to a role at Cisco, so one I was very happy about!

Just believe?

That’s not to say that “just believe” is the right justification for venturing into social media. It certainly isn’t a business case! The nature of social media means there is a big divide between those who “get it” and those who “don’t” – it is a highly experiential thing.

The role of a good advocate is to bridge the gap, by engaging with each side on their own terms. The business needs numbers from the social media team, and the social media team needs belief and support from the business.

A few years ago we reached a tipping point which left us in a market where the majority of our audience is on-line, both at work and at home. To ignore that would clearly be folly. More interestingly, “on-line” for most consumers means on-Facebook or on- some other social platform. Consumer use of technology, and specifically the Internet, has overtaken business use in its sophistication. It’s time for business to catch up.

We don’t like what’s on – so we’re changing channel

There’s a broader shift happening – the transition from traditional media, through digital media, to social media. More money was spent on on-line advertising than on TV advertising in the UK last quarter. Now, that might well be a blip, but it is also part of a trend: The “eye balls” are moving, and so your budget better start to move with them.

Each channel is based around a different way of interacting. The interruption-based model of broadcast advertising is giving way to an engagement model that works well in the digital space. Social media requires something different: advocacy. The illusion of “the brand” interacting with “the consumer” has had the curtain pulled from it. I have a shelf full of books here that speak to the power (and difference) of the connected consumer. Customers are not alone anymore, they are part of a crowd that interacts and engages with each other as well as the business. That’s true in business to business as well as it is in business to consumer. It always has been. Social media has just made those interactions more visible. Businesses operate in commercial eco-systems, stitched together by transactions and interactions.

What’s your marketing R&D strategy?

So, what is your R&D strategy for marketing then? Any self-respecting business puts a percentage of budget into investigating new technologies. Why should it be any different for a marketing department? How do you learn new techniques and skills, and optimise what you are doing?  There should always be some experimental projects in progress, with a view to turning the successful ones into core marketing practice – displacing older methods that have become ineffective. Social media really doesn’t need a big budget to get started. The biggest cost will be your time. That’s a cost not to be under-estimated, and it’s in the business case you have for all of your other activities, right? [slight ;) smiley there]

Pick a spot and shake off your preconceptions

Contrary to popular conception, the social media space is not over run by either spotty teenagers, or old men blogging in their pyjamas from bed. The statistics (I like Technorati’s state of the blogosphere) tell a different story. It is populated by people like the one’s who work for your business customers, and strangely enough, by people like you. While email still dominates business communication, the use of social software is rising rapidly, and it is more prevalent in business than you might think (around 50% of businesses, even in more ‘traditional’ sectors).

The social media landscape is huge and complex, but you don’t need to understand it all, just pick your spot – one that you feel conformable with and that your customers and prospects are already talking about.

Social media operates at the intersection of technology, social interaction and digital media (that’s why I love it so much). Pull together a group of people that have those skills, or acquire them. It isn’t as hard as it sounds.

Know what your customer says

Business policy is bifurcating around social media. There are businesses who are banning its use for all staff and not using it externally, although the occasional brave soul is trying to limp out onto the big wide web via a netbook and 3g dongle.

At the other end of the spectrum, businesses are embracing the tools internally and putting them very much at the heart of their external marketing. Understand what your customers are doing, because the biggest question is this:

Are your prospects, competitors or customers active on social media? If they are, not being there is like not having a telephone

If your customers are talking, are you listening? If they are asking, are you responding? Your favourite search engine will point you to an increasing volume of case studies, but what works for your business will be unique to you, and to your customers.

The Risks?

There are risks, but to my mind the risks of not building a social-media savvy workforce are bigger than those of using the tools. The threats to information security, brand control and reputation are not new – social  media just increases the scale and makes them more visible.

If you have an employee engagement problem, then you are probably already being bad-mouthed down the pub and on Facebook. Your biggest information security threats are the ones you can’t see, not the ones that are picked up by a web alert. Oh, and your customers are already doing things to and with your brand that would truely horrify you.

How do you deal with it? The short answer: Get over it. It’s already happening. The long answer:

Your legal team became your new best friends.

Once you’ve formulated your plan, and BEFORE you execute it, work with your legal team. Understand their concerns and help them understand the risks to the company’s revenue and reputation if you don’t engage on-line – get them to take responsibility for the latter, and take responsibility for the former yourself, and you’ll be in a good position.

Don’t expect to resolve everything in one meeting – it may take months. If you can’t resolve the differences, it might be time to look for a new business or a new legal team.

The mirror case

The best way to build your social media business case it to look at its mirror: Assume that you are NOT going to engage in any social media activities. What will that cost the business? Examine and quantify each item. Now, pick one of  those and build your plan and business case around it.

The best strategy?

As an old boss taught me, and as is enshrined in lean thinking:

Think Big. Move Fast. Act Small.

Start with a BIG vision of where you want to get to. What would your ideal long-term outcome be? View it as your strategic plan. Now, what is the smallest first step you can take towards it? Something that you can do quickly and that can be an integrated part of an existing or planned project.

Set realistic, conservative targets for your project. The objectives should include some meaningful financial measures, as well as behaviour/belief and engagement/interaction targets. Be careful, the wrong metrics can lead you wildly astray. Post-views, followers and the myriad of other platform-specific metrics have their uses, but they are not the same as business metrics.

Execute your plan quickly, at low cost and then review your results. In doing so you’ve built the strongest possible platform for pursuing your longer social media strategy.

It’s a marathon not a sprint

The best returns on social media use come from long term engagement. If you walked into a party and engaged someone in a conversation, then left the room just as they got interested in what you were talking about, they are going to think you are rude. Don’t do it, there or in social media.

Modern marketing, at least in the technology space, has evolved into a cycle of “launch-and-forget” – panic, panic, product launch, breath. Forget. new panic, panic, new product launch, breath. It leaves customers baffled, confused and aggravated.

Be in social media for the long-haul. I spent months blogging into what felt like a void. Years later some of those early post still get thousands of views a month and generate good quality leads each quarter.

It will take a while for customers to find you, and get used to interacting with your business via social channels. However, once they start, they won’t stop, and neither should you.

Seek conversations not content

Social media is about the conversations and the connections that they build and surface. Content is important, but it certainly isn’t king. For many that will be a mindset shift. Conversations are valuable, ask any sales team. Conversations also lead to more relevant content, and more relevant content leads to more engaged customers.

“You can’t just say it. You have to get the people to say it to each other” James Farley, CMO, Ford

Remember, this is about advocacy – creating a community that understand and support what your business is doing, and who will share that with their network. A luke-warm third party recommendation will beat your most shiny-glowing marketing piece – This is reference selling, 2010 style.

We can see you – when we search

social-see-youThe changes in the search space are a complete talk in their own right, but for now consider this: When people search for information about your business space, will they find you? What conversations will they see?

Not when they search for your company name – you should already have that one firmly in your radar – but when they search on issues in your space. Conversations in social media are searchable and in customer language. That is digital gold-dust.

Four steps

This is another way of framing the social media strategy for business folk, and was echo’d by talks throughout the day:

  1. Listen – appreciate enquiry will help you understand the space and set a base line for whatever you do.
  2. Engage – add value and start to contribute – be there to help.
  3. Measure – understand your impact and the scale of the conversations.
  4. Build capabilities and build community – these will be your key assets.

Not all cows produce milk

cowDonning a cow costume does not make you a cow. Think about it. Getting a traditional agency to do digital marketing via social media is not the same as doing social media marketing. You’ll get results, but no social media juice.

One of the advantages of executing your first social media project as part of an existing campaign is that it helps to make the distinction clear – just ensure you can identify the contribution of the social media component.

The upside of social media is huge, but hard to predict - @radiokate‘s fox (mentioned during my presentation) has now been viewed over 50,000 times: http://twitpic.com/sebvd – and it just jumped from social media to mainstream media. Could you have predicted that?

Which takes me neatly to my final points: Social media shouldn’t be viewed as an island. Without exception, every social media success story I have been involved in has worked exactly because in was integrated into a broader marketing and communication plan, and because it had a knock on impact into other channels.

‘Doing social media’ isn’t a case of walking through the blue door, never to see the old world again, it is a matter of organically building new skills and extending traditional marketing activities. See it as a gradual transition to a different way of engaging with customers, suppliers and prospects, one step at a time.