Unpacking Social Media Truisms – “The Strategy”

Posted by: in Social Media Insights & Trends on July 14, 2010

Social media in the enterprise is still in its infancy. As with any significant change in the way business is done, it’s filled with brilliance, innovation, exploration and “next practices.” But it’s also filled with red herrings, misunderstood causes and correlations, and snake oil salesmen. In this series, I’m taking a look at a series of social media “truisms” – the conventional wisdom of the day – and asking some questions about how universally true they really are.

Thanks for joining us last time as we explored truism number one: The Champion.  Today we’ll look at truism number two: “The Strategy”

“You’d better not try anything in social media unless you have a clearly defined strategy.”

Strategies are good.  Businesses ought to have them.  They’re nearly as important as the ability to execute them.  But strategy and innovation have a strange and not-necessarily-intuitive relationship.  Some of this derives from a difference of opinion about what a business strategy really is.  So that we’re all on the same page on that count, let’s agree on this definition fromwikipedia.

“[Business strategy] is the process of specifying the organization’s mission, vision and objectives, developing policies and plans, often in terms of projects and programs, which are designed to achieve these objectives, and then allocating resources to implement the policies and plans, projects and programs.” [Emphasis mine – GM]

When strategy gets to the point of being defined by policies, plans, projects and programs, it can most easily be implemented.  But it can also turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy by closing off possibilities other than those anticipated.  I started this post with the statement that social media is in its infancy – and I believe that.  I also beleive that new methods and tools supporting community and collaboration represent much more than just another communication channel for your marketing department.  I believe that new products, services and business models are being innovated right now based on the idea that there is such a thing as a “collaborative economy” and that it is on our doorstep.

One of the things that makes social media different is that it’s based on user-generated content, a creation of the whole rather than “a product” created by “a corporation.”  YouTube isn’t just a technology platform; it is what it is because of the hundreds of millions of videos that live on it, and the billions of hours that people spend watching them.  What that means to companies is that when you create something and give it to the world, you don’t necessarily know what they’re going to do with it. It may wind up looking completely different than what you intended – and that’s a good thing.  If your users (whether they are your customers, or suppliers, or partners, or employees) are using your product (or service, or community) you want to embrace that – even if they’re not using it in the way that you thought they would!  As they’re using it, they’re also co-creating it – and that makes it more likely that they will keep using it.

The point is that when you’re just getting started with anything – especially social media – I think that it’s fine to have goals.  Of course you should have some reason for being there.  But I don’t encourage people to be too specific about what that reason is at first.  Give your audience some time and space to experience what you’ve given them – and see where they’ll take it – before you gavel down on a strategy.  Think about your business goals, and how you might use social media to achieve them – just don’t rule out the possibility that some greater goal than you imagined is being created before your eyes.

Has this worked for you?  Has it failed?  Do you have questions about how to make it work in reality?  The comments belong to you – I’d love to hear from you.

And don’t forget to tune in next time for Trusim #3: The “Me Too” Strategy

To learn more about the inspiration for this series, check out the case study on Humana’s successful social media model, “The Town Square ” or this webinar from the RacePoint Group on Organizing for Social Media – where I was honored to present alongside Larry Weber and Steven Goldbach of the Monitor Group.

Strategy Photo by BirgerKing

By: Greg Matthews

Greg Matthews is the the creator and Managing Director of the W2O Group's MDigitalLife - Understanding, Engaging and Activating Physicians in the Digital Age

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9 Responses

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  1. I find this post really interesting, Greg, and I agree with you that especially when you’re getting started, you need flexibility more than anything.

    As a team at Radian6, we’ve been commenting about how much has changed in the last year, and how we’ve adapted and adjusted our goals and roadmap based on what we learn. You have to be brave enough to formulate a hypothesis – a good, educated guess and your assumptions and goals – and go from there. Rigidity is the enemy of nimble business, so in a newer space like the one we’re establishing, I think it behooves businesses to think guideposts vs. definitive roadmaps, and be willing to adapt as they go.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post, and for being willing to challenge some of the conventional wisdom.

  2. Hey! Great to have you here, Amber! Boy I couldn’t agree more with the importance of that balance … My default position is to drift to the extremely unstructured side of the equation (because I have fun there) but working in a small company again, it’s made me appreciate the value of rigidity in some places. I suppose it’s an eternal struggle …

  3. Thanks for this post.
    I share Amber’s comment. It’s really a matter of agility and it’s critical to be both strategic and agile.
    When you say, “Think about your business goals”, it sounds to me like start with a strategy.

    It’s a matter of balance. Being open to a different usage of your product/service is great… providing there is a market and you can turn this use case into a profit.
    I see many people going too far on the opposite side: build a twitter account, get 1000s of off target followers (including many bots) and not getting any benefits out of it.
    “Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity” (C Powell) ; so yes on being agile and open to customer driven innovation, no on trying to adress every single need that shows up.


  4. Good thoughts, dominiq … thanks for sharing. And I think it’s a good catch about what business goals are relative to strategy … I guess I’m thinking about business goals as higher level things like “Increase new business by 10%” or “Get our best customers to buy 5% more stuff.” Which allows you A LOT of room to try stuff that seems like it might work.
    And you’re sure right about finding the balance, because being on either end of the spectrum is probably not a great thing very often. Hope to see you back here often!

  5. Greg, Congrats on the new gig! I agree that strategy is an integral part of any social media program. I got the sense from your post that you were struggling with the relationship between strategy and innovation. Not too long ago I came across an interesting concept, “Culture eats strategy for lunch” (video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kiFMJfrCO_0).

    This has never been more true than when trying to implement social technologies and media into our business practices. I actually first saw this in action from you. You had created a team that focused on innovation. Innovation was the culture first and the strategy second.

  6. Hey, Ryan! Great to see you here. Yes, you’re right … I do struggle with strategy vs innovation (check out this post on chimoose.com: http://www.chimoose.com/2009/11/whats-thwarting-american-innovation.html). And I am a big believer in the importance of culture … it’s amazing how often the companies with great cultures wind up “winning,” isn’t it?

  7. The drive to formally strategize social represents one of the real missteps for those starting out. This is a moving target for all of us and ‘strategic’ restrictions inhibit what should be a general move towards social thinking and social design of how we do business.

    Looking forward to your next post in the series, Greg. And you’re a really talented writer, BTW. While I look forward to your e-book, I’d love to see your thinking in hardcover at Barnes & Noble.

  8. Greg,

    Excellent post – it’s something I’ve been saying for a while. These are basic communication tools like email, fax machine or the telephone. If you have to have a strategy, then keep it simple and open to innovation. My Social Media goals are simple: get my organization involved and become a respected member of the community. Be open to conversation, and most of all – Listen, then see where it leads.


  9. Whenever I’m asked for input or advice on digital strategy / social media in a business context, I offer up three concrete yet potentially abstract outcomes to aspire toward: increase revenue, decrease cost, or change the nature of relationships [vis-a-vis users as you’ve defined them above].

    The first two are relatively easy to measure with a traditional mindset (ROI? ugh), but the third – IMHO – can redefine the core of the business itself and serve to supersede the outcomes of the first two strategic guideposts. In my mind, opening up an organization or process to the idea of changing relationship dynamics can result in an enduring, geometric impact vs. the linear impact of focusing on saving and making more money by applying a ‘smarter strategy.’

    I also agree that agility and flexibility can unlock new dimensions in the business context, but I completely understand the apprehension in risk-taking by stakeholders. Changing relationships with customers, employees, et al. in some [MANY] situations probably warrants more reservation and careful thought than the social media ‘purists’ would prescribe in their truisms. You and I both probably have some war stories about the ongoing struggle between strategy v. execution in matrixed international enterprises!

    Keep on rockin, Greg – hope to catch up with you soon!

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