Businesses and governments spend a lot of time, effort, and money attempting to do two things with social media: a) block it completely, or b) allow it, but attempt to monopolize it as a sales channel. Usually in the latter case, it eventually comes down to that dreaded three-letter acronym: ROI. Yes, ‘return on investment’ – how does allowing my employees to be part of this burgeoning new networked world help my business sell more things or make my people more productive?
The answer is… it probably won’t (at least not directly), which might come as a shock to most business and government people who have been ‘sold’ on social media. You see, I think that way too much focus goes into trying to quantify the benefits of social media, when in point of fact, they are almost impossible to measure. How do you measure the productivity gain of having your talented employees asking questions, sharing ideas, and yes, occasionally ranting on Facebook or Twitter? Answer: You can’t (directly). However, when one of your employees seeks information on a particularly tough problem they are having, or asks for a contact into a potential new business venture, and gets multiple responses (some of which are very good), there is invaluable knowledge transfer happening! Chris Brogan had a great take on social media metrics in his latest blog post, to wit: “…Make the numbers matter to the business, not to what social media does and doesn’t cover.” He’s right on the money here – instead of making up metrics specific to social media, focus on the outcomes that you are already trying to measure for brand outreach or worker productivity. Trying to directly measure social media ROI is a dubious proposition at best.
The Open Source world has learned the lessons of ‘social media’ well, even if they aren’t directly using Facebook or Twitter (and in some cases, they are!). Social media makes it easier for ‘communities’ to build up (or tear down) dynamically and provides a near real-time professional zeitgeist. Yes, I know, I’ve used that description in previous blog posts, but it really is the most apt word that can be used for what social media, properly used, can bring to the party.
Let’s look at an analogy to an ‘older’ technology – email. How do you measure the benefit of having your employees able to email anyone (yes, including Grandma Fern for her cookie recipe)? I don’t believe you can measure this, but considering that not having email access at most companies is pretty much like not having electricity, we’ve clearly gotten past the conceptual hump on that technology. To those critics who will argue that Twitter/Facebook, etc. take too much time away from employee productivity, I’d have to agree, IF you don’t do a good enough job of screening your potential employees. If you hire people who can’t be trusted to professionally manage their time in the social networking arena, unfettered email access is surely going to be a problem as well.
Let’s focus for a minute on the monopolization of social media for the marketing/sales side. I’m not at all suggesting that these avenues aren’t a good option for sales/marketing activities. However, if that is the sole reason you are using them as a company, you’d probably be better off spending your money on traditional advertising campaigns. The benefit you get from being involved in Twitter or Facebook as a company is that your brand is seen as more ‘human,’ and you get a new way to interact with your current and potential user base in a two-way fashion, as opposed to pushing ‘messaging’ at them. People who are already part of these social networks expect a conversation with your company, not another one-way push of sales information.
So, does all of this mean you and your employees shouldn’t be a part of this new frontier? Absolutely not – there is clear evidence, albeit anecdotal, that participation by companies and employees in social media improves knowledge transfer and overall brand awareness. Given that the ‘investment’ is mostly in time (the technology piggybacks on your existing network infrastructure), and if your staff are professionals, you can expect to have happier – and generally more knowledgeable – employees, as well as customers.
Remember, business analysts at one time thought email was going to be the downfall of the business world, but it has instead become a critical tool. While not there yet, social media systems as tools are well on their way to following suit.