Corporate social technology strategy, Purists, and Corporatists -- why companies CAN participate
by Josh Bernoff
It's time for me to weigh in on the question: can companies be part of the social world?
This is in part a reaction to Shel Israel's comments of a few months back and my colleague Jeremiah's Owyang's responses. But it's an ongoing issue that comes up often in the blogosphere in my conversations with corporate clients.
On the one side are the folks who say, "The social world is an emergent phenomenon generated by people connecting." The original Cluetrain Manifesto rails against many aspects of the corporate world and basically posits that the right way for companies to get involved is for people inside those companies to connect to their customers. Based on my recent participation at a Cluetrain event, Cluetrain author Doc Searls still harbors a lot of skepticism toward corporations pursuing goals in the social world. For shorthand, let's call these folks the Purists.
On the other side are companies who are looking at the social Internet and saying "how can we exploit this to do what we already do -- PR and advertising, for example?" PR and advertising are mostly one-way, broadcast type communications, and these folks continue to try to adapt those one-way modes of thinking in the two-way, read-write world of social computing. I'll caricature these folks as the Corporatists.
I'm here to stand up and proudly say, Purists and Corporatists, you're both wrong.
Here's how I suggest people in companies think about social computing.
If you're in a company, your company can participate. In fact, you must participate. Your customers and prospects are connecting and talking about your products and your company right now -- this is what we call the groundswell. You need to be a part of the conversation. You might start a blog, you might start a Facebook group, you might start a community, or begin twittering, but until you start connecting as a corporate employee, you won't understand what's going on out there. And it can and will bite you.
You also need to start with the recognition that you are not now, nor will you ever be, in control of this "channel," "world," "phenomenon," or whatever you want to call it. It goes its own way and it will continually surprise you. This is where the Purists are right and the Corporatists are fooling themselves. But this is not so new. When my colleague Charlene Li was writing about how to deal with Wikipedia, I suggested it's no different in some ways from the New York Times -- you can influence it, but you're not in charge of it. Same with the rest of the social world -- you can participate, but not control. If this scares you, great. If you can't deal with it, somebody else in your company had better head up your social technology efforts.
But the fundamental principle behind about 80% of our book Groundswell is that you can accomplish corporate objectives in the social world. This is what bugs the Purists. As a corporate staffer, you have no business in the groundswell unless you know what you are trying to do there. You could be trying to increase awareness, generate word of mouth, surface leads, save on support costs, on tap into innovation. But regardless, no corporate activity should go forward without a measurable goal, and this is no different.
So, do you participate as an individual or a corporation? Of course, as a corporation. Companies may be made of people, but those people are not free agents. Your boss needs to know what you're doing, and, we argue in the book, your top management should, too, since they're going to inevitably get some surprises from these efforts. You'll need budget (maybe not a lot), and you need cover. Sometimes you need to push the membrane that Rob Scoble and Shel Israel talk about, finding ways to stretch corporate attitudes just enough to succeed. But you'd better be aligned with the corporation's goals, if not necessarily its tactics and every single one of its rules.
There's a lot of talk about authenticity, too. But the tone I hear from some Purists seems to be that if it's corporate, it has to involve lying, or at least deception. Please. Corporations, like people, have interests. They can talk about their products and services honestly. Of course they will be pro-company -- that's authentic, to believe in what you're making. But a pro-company attitude doesn't prevent two-way communication. In fact, in idea-generating applications like salesforce.com's IdeaExchange, or Credit Mutuel's sijetaisbanquier.com, it's that give and take between customers and people inside the company that fuels the innovation.
Teams -- small teams -- get most social projects done. Corporate bloggers may need help with moderation. Specifying, managing, and moderating communities is not a one-person job. These applications work best when they support corporate goals anyway. That's what gets you backers within the company, not just fearful detractors.
So it is no sin to conceive, create, and deploy a corporate social application. If you have a clear objective and can measure it, you are even likely to succeed. Just recognize that you must start from authenticity, it's a dialogue, and that the social world cannot be controlled. The companies I work with are starting to do this. It's not impossible -- in fact, it's the beginning of an incredible transformation. And their participation won't kill the groundswell, it will make it richer.