Mal Fletcher
Leveraging the Power of Social Media

3 Keys to Making Social Media Work in Your Enterprise

Social media are at the forefront of a revolution in the way people converse and build relationships.

Yet, speaking to civic, business and community leaders in various parts of the world, I've discovered a sometimes profound sense of wariness toward the social networking phenomenon.

Many leaders seem wary of getting too involved in what they believe will be a short-lived cultural trend.

Others, of a certain age, see it as just another myopia-inducing toy, built for the amusement of the under-30 Millennial generation. As such, some believe it as part of a disturbing trend toward social disconnection.

Social networking is, however, a communication platform that is here to stay - and it brings with it great potential for good. Not least in business and in civic leadership.

How can we leverage social media, harnessing its seemingly whimsical, stream-of-consciousness style to enhance innovation and enlarge our reach? Here are 3 important places to start...

Go Beyond Marketing

Social networking has been trumpeted as a bold new tool that can revolutionise marketing. In some ways, it is just that. Yet social media represent far more than another marketing platform.

The word to emphasise in the title is social. These platforms allow us to build, at the very least, arms-length personal connections with people we might not otherwise have come across.

Sometimes, these connections develop into more meaningful friendships, though this is where online networking often needs to facilitate face-to-face encounters.

This presents a challenge to companies and civic organisations. It means that we need to move toward what I call iSolutions, in an age of isolation.

iSolution refers to the ability to respond to the aspirations, needs and desires of individuals or small groups of individuals via unfolding conversations, rather than ‘pitching’ to demographic target groups.

In terms of the important services they buy, people no longer want to be treated simply as customers - or worse, prospects. They want to develop a level of mutuality in relationship, with companies they like and trust.

Whether your social networking is handled by a designated employee or department, or by yourself, you as a leader need to see that meaningful connection is the key.

As you build connections, there will be opportunities to share about the work you're doing and the services you offer. Personal relationship and the trust it engenders makes it possible to introduce new ideas and have them accepted, or at least checked out, and then shared much more quickly.

However, when it comes to social media people have inbuilt Tupperware detectors - they can smell plastic a mile away.

If your underlying motive is to push an idea or product you will quickly find that your base of "friends" or "followers" quickly narrows. It will include only those who already appreciate products like yours, or who have something they want to pitch to you.

To maintain a wider range of contacts, you need to treat social media as a marketplace of ideas, where selling is less important than sharing valuable information.

Online networking is all about adding value to people, by exposing them to ideas and narratives they might not otherwise have encountered. And it's about learning from the ideas and insights of others.

The strength of social media lies in its potential for viral communication. If people agree with or are intrigued by something you say - whether in text, audio or video - they will pass it along. When enough people do this, the message goes viral.

People will only ever forward something if they feel it will add value to their friends, as it has to them.

Unless you're a celebrity, people will find details of your daily routine boring in the extreme. Not-so-well-known people try to play the same game and fail. For the sender, the minutae of his/her life makes for captivating reading. For the reader it is a sure-fire cure for insomnia.

Similarly, the best CEOs and managers passionately believe in their products and feel that they're worth talking about. But will they do nothing but push their products if they're in conversation with someone over a cup of coffee? No, not unless they're social inept.

Social media will be a boon to you rather than a burden if you treat them as a form of one-on-one conversation, albeit using mass media.

In the end, your business only has value if it adds value to individual people. Your emphasis in social media should be on sharing insights or experiences that will help others.

When it comes to products and services, the emphasis should be on how these can add value to people - but only in the context of an ongoing, wider conversation.

People will respond better if you've proven that you have their best interests at heart.

Open Source your Innovation Process

Few businesses seem to understand the potential of social media for promoting and pursuing open source culture.

The growing exposure of social networking platforms offers us an unprecedented opportunity to seek answers from outside of our enterprise. (And, in an age that values mass collaboration, to be seen to be doing it!)

Salvatore Iaconesi is an Italian artist, robotics engineer and lecturer in interaction design, who was diagnosed with brain cancer. He saw in this terrible news an exciting opportunity, a way of opening up a discussion about treating and managing conditions like his own.

He open-sourced his condition by translating all of his official medical records into layman's language and placing them online. He invited people to suggest treatments and received over 200,000 responses in the first month, including many from other patients and doctors.

Before long, he noticed that medical practitioners were treating his site as a trading floor for ideas and opinions. Medicos from very different disciplines were coming together online, including nutritionists, oncologists and practitioners of Chinese and other traditional forms of medicine.

To date, Iaconessi has received more than 50,000 specific strategies suggested as cures and has become a TED fellow (2012). Meanwhile, the Italian government is watching his site as it considers ways to make patients' medical records more accessible.

Iaconessi's story shows the potential of what lies ahead in the world of open source culture.

A willingness to share a problem or an idea in its embryonic stages, allows for potentially huge leaps forward through what some have called the "wisdom of crowds".

The shift from closed culture to open innovation culture is not an easy transition for any organisation. It requires a bold admission that no matter how many gifted people we hire, we will need help from outside to push an idea to its full potential.

When a new project is to be launched, social media provide a great springboard for truly out-of-the-box brain-storming.

Yes, proprietary ownership of ideas remains an important concept. But technological advance, the forces of globalisation and the emergence into leadership of a much more collaborative Millennial generation are pushing a more collegiate culture in business.

In the next few years, we will see the emergence of a stronger culture of shared copyrights. Collaborators within distinct enterprises will own different parts of an overall patent.

In the emerging environment, collective thinking will be necessary for survival, especially in a world that is conditioned by the collaborative culture of social media.

Turn Cyber-Tribe to Real-Tribe

As you build connections through social media, it's important to identify relationships that might benefit from being taken to another level.

For all its huge potential for enhancing and facilitating relationships, social networking still offers mainly arms-length connections.

Successful businesses have always recognised that there are different levels of customer and partner relationships. They make provision for people to move from being casual customers to ongoing clients. Many will personalise aspects of their service to reflect their respect for the return client.

One of the symptoms of what I've labelled Digital Dementia is an inability to recognise that digital relationships are seldom as close as those that involve ongoing face-to-face interaction.

Skype, for example, is a wonderful tool. Our son, a film maker, currently lives in Australia. We are based in the UK. Without tools like Skype or Google Hangouts, we would find it so much harder to feel involved in his life.

As a TV social commentator, I've always found it harder to respond to an interviewer remotely, via a video link, than it is when we're actually together in the studio.

Like anything else, it gets at least marginally easier with practice. But there's something inhibiting about this form of remote conversation. It feels as if a big part of your natural conversation toolkit has been removed.

Visual media that rely on a flat screen, or audio equipment that focus only on the voice, deny us the use of our unconscious, yet very influential, powers of biometric reading.

Through a complex interplay of our senses and the benefit of experience through countless conversations, we are able to read facial and other signals as we converse. These often tell us much more about an interlocutor than his or her words.

No matter how sophisticated the hardware or software, technology can't replicate the power of across-the-table time in a relationship.

If social media is to serve you well in your enterprise, you'll need to look for ways to turn cyber-tribe to real-tribe. You'll want to find ways to morph remote connections into physical ones.

Ever since the introduction of mass car and air travel large companies have held annual conventions. People who work together by phone need the opportunity to "press-the-flesh" and put a face to the voice on the line.

Similarly, trade fairs offer customers an opportunity not just to catch up with the latest technologies, but to interact on a personal level with others in their field.

Flash-mobbing was born out of the widespread use of text messaging and then boosted by the arrival of social networking platforms. It gathers people in physical space using the facility of cyberspace.

People who may have nothing in common, aside from their connection to a stream on Twitter or Facebook, are drawn together for a purpose.

The goal of a flash-mob might be to clean up the streets of a city, as people have done in Naples, Italy and in London, following the 2011 riots. Or it might be to call attention to social or political injustice, as happened in several cities during the Arab Spring.

Alternatively, the aim might be to take part in a marketing campaign (see the spate of flash-mob-based TV commercials on YouTube). Or it might be simply to have fun through performing an unusual physical activity in a public place.

Flash-mobbing often features both spontaneity and strategy: the event is planned by someone, for a purpose, but the result is spur-of-the-moment.

Whatever form it takes, people enjoy flash-mobbing because it's an opportunity to get together and to be part of something bigger than they are.

This might be a great time to brainstorm with your team, to find ways of bringing people in your cyber-list together in real-time.

Sharing an activity or event, especially if it has a truly interactive element and perhaps an altruistic end, is attractive in an age of digital isolation.

Finally, it's worth noting that social media requires patience. You won't build a following or, more importantly, meaningful connections overnight. As with any other form of people-connecting, online networking is an art. It will take you and your team time to find what works best for you, while remaining ever open to new approaches.

When it's done well, though, social networking is the most viral of all forms of communication.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

About us