Thought leadership

Social business – a company's move from a presence on social platforms to strategic engagement that supports business goals, fosters brand affinity and generates co-created value – is no small undertaking for corporations, but it is undoubtedly the direction in which top companies are heading, according to an in-depth study on social media trends released today.

The move to social business for many of the world's most recognized companies faces a hurdle, however: Social media tools have radically transformed the way people engage with the world around them, yet many of the corporations studied that cater to and employ these individuals appear to have been slower to find ways to effectively connect in these channels.

The 2012 Fed Ex/Ketchum Social Media Benchmarking Study examined the changing impact of social media on business today. The study updates and expands upon research findings first released in 2010. As part of the research, quantitative surveys were completed by 55 communications and marketing executives at companies internationally. In addition, detailed qualitative interviews were conducted with 30 communications and social media thought leaders.

It’s a generation thing

"The rise of social media is both the biggest business communications challenge and opportunity in decades," said Bill Margaritis, senior vice president of Global Communications and Investor Relations at FedEx. "Our survey provides a dynamic look at how business is evolving and expanding its social platform use, what's working so far, and what might be next. Younger audiences in particular expect to interact with businesses this way; businesses building for the long-term will benefit by learning from our findings."

The findings suggest that these business executives believe they have a strong framework in place for supporting the needs of customers and the general public online, and they are most effectively using social media to enhance brand reputation and awareness, provide customer service and strengthen relationships across key stakeholders. The research further suggests that these companies believe they are particularly effective at strengthening relationships among customers (51 percent), the general public (52 percent) and partners and suppliers (40 percent). With effective strategies in place for these stakeholders, companies are turning their attention to improved engagement with employees, via both external social tools and improved social functionality of internal platforms such as company intranets.

Employees key to social success

"Companies today recognize that employees are often their most passionate, credible and impactful brand ambassadors, both internally and externally, and are designing communications strategies that reflect that reality," said Tyler Durham, partner and managing director of Ketchum Pleon Change. "The 2012 study revealed significant movement among those analyzed in the area of internal social connections on two fronts: internal engagement between the company and its employees, and empowerment of employees to represent the brand externally. Both approaches support the move toward true social business and will ultimately foster real business results in terms of employee retention, engagement and productivity."

While about half of 2010 study participants were focused on improving their intranets and expressed an interest in redesigning their intranets to include greater social media capabilities, 2012 results indicated that the participants are increasingly encouraging employees to own social media efforts and act as confident and active ambassadors for the organization.

In fact, 85 percent of the companies who use social media to engage employees reported that employee participation in their organization's social business efforts increased over the past 12 months. These companies believe they are effectively using these strategies with employees in the social space to:


  • Strengthen relationships (46 percent)

  • Share and tap into expertise (44 percent)

  • Foster collaboration, dialogue and discussion (44 percent)

  • Increase participation in a program or an initiative (38 percent)


Interestingly, while there was extensive discussion in 2010 around development and enforcement of employee social media policies that might limit employee interactions with these tools, many of these companies appear to have become more comfortable by 2012 in educating and empowering employees and customers to operate as brand ambassadors capable of managing the social conversation with the support of social media policies and guidelines.

Social business also is driving organizations to become more adaptive to marketplace needs as they use social tools to listen to their stakeholders and respond by providing them with the content they want to receive in the channels they want to receive it in. Organizations are also adapting products and services to fit stakeholders' preferences and co-create value.

"Social media benchmarks aren't going to help a company turn into a social business. To be successful they really need to become an adaptive business and understand, listen and respond to their customers," said Brian Solis, principal at Altimeter Group, who participated as a thought leader in the study.

Social ditching the old silos

While expansion of audiences actively engaged via social media was a clear theme of the 2012 study, another noteworthy trend was the increasingly expanded ownership of a company's social channels. In fact, one-third of participating companies (34 percent) list social media as a shared responsibility in their organization, often with pieces belonging to communications, marketing teams and/or web and digital. Most included companies (64 percent) also said the structure and roles in the marketing, communications or human resources teams have changed as a result of social business.

A significant factor in the evolution of social business can also be attributed to executive leadership having a better understanding of how social media is a necessary component for business success. Seven in 10 of these companies with some executive engagement in social media say their executives believe engagement in social media adds value through brand or reputation building. One quarter of these companies report their executives have a high or somewhat high level of engagement in social business in their organization.

"We wouldn't have been this active if it wasn't for the company's executives," shared Peter Osborne, Communications Executive at Bank of America. "Social media is now an everyday part of the conversation."

One thing that hasn't changed since the 2010 study is the challenge presented in the area of measurement. A majority of the companies (80 percent) conduct some type of social media measurement, but many also admit to challenges, particularly where external audiences are concerned.

In looking for ways to crack the ROI measurement code, 84 percent of the companies that measure social media focus on engagement, while 69 percent track impressions, 53 percent analyze influence and 51 percent assess tone. Some companies even report developing social scorecards in the years since the last study, attempting to directly track the financial impact of social media efforts. While the search for a measurement solution goes on, 84 percent of survey participants agree there will always be some aspects of marketing that cannot be measured, but are important nevertheless.



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