So impressed was I with a recent report from Altimeter group on Social Business titled

“The evolution of social business – six stages of social business transformation”

that I decided to do a multi-part blog post. The first post can be viewed at

In this second post, I am looking at the section of the report that looks at defining a social business strategy.

The Altimeter report looked at 698 companies in medium-large sized companies, as well as deeper interviews with 26 executives and social strategists at 15 companies.

The Altimeter definition of a social business strategy is

“the set of visions, goals, plans, and resources that align social media initiatives with business objectives”

In a recent post, I provided an analogy of a broadway show as a way to outline the differences between social media and social business (think front of house vs backstage).

The Altimeter social business strategy definition dovetails nicely in here – as it is important to understand that when we are speaking about a social business, we need to consider the existing (and planned) social media initiatives with a company’s actual business objectives.

It scares me that many companies dive into social media, thinking they “just need to be there” without considering how what they are doing with social maps into the wider business context.

In their report, Altimeter has defined six stages of social business transformation – outlined below.

Their view (which I share), is that regardless of an organisation’s size, companies all go through these 6 stages as they transform their business into a social business.

Altimeter found that even in the early stages of a social business transformation, companies need to introduce value by aligning or meeting business goals. This is in my view critical to obtain, and keep senior management support.

In the first part of my review of this report, we learned that nearly half of the survey respondents thought that their senior executives were not aligned with the social business strategy.

This was due in part to the fact that many senior executives see social (and hence social business) as a foreign concept, because they have never really used social in any true business context.

Taking as a given that it maybe near-impossible to churn out social execs in the timeframe required, the next best thing is to always be able to defend the social business strategy against the company’s wider objectives and show how the social business program is driving real benefits.

Even if senior executives don’t “get” social, they will “get” that if a clearly articulated strategy is working and providing tangible benefits, and is delivering on their business objectives, it should be supported and funded.

Until now, it has been difficult in my view for companies that have a social media presence (without a social business strategy to tie it against) to justify to their senior management that what they are doing in social i actually driving business benefits.

Many “social strategies” have been written that have no link back to the overall company strategy, and this leaves the authors of these strategies wide open to have their funding pulled by execs – with the reason “social media isn’t working for us”.

I was speaking to a well known recruiter, Steve Ward in London recently who works placing social media candidates who said that he was seeing community managers struggling after a year or so because execs were not supporting their efforts in social, because the business benefits were not being proven.

Steve’s tweet below says it all. SMM = Social Media Manager.

This is a pretty convincing argument for someone who does not understand social to stand behind – and even harder to defend if your efforts are not driving revenue or cost savings for the business.

Let’s go through the 6 stages as defined in the report (click to enlarge the graphic below).

Stage 1 – Planning – “Listen to learn”

Back when I was at Visible Technologies (way back in 2009), leading their international strategy efforts in London, we looked the 4 stages of social (not many people were talking about social business then) as

  • Listen
  • Learn
  • Engage
  • Integrate

It would be fair to say that in 2013, many firms are already “listening” to social media – they know that they “have to” because sometimes, people say bad things about them.

Back in 2009, what I was advising clients was that they needed to at least listen to what was being said, so they could then form a strategy about what do with this rich information.

Translating the listening stage into a social business framework, Altimeter describes the goal of the first stage is to ensure a strong foundation for strategy development, organizational alignment, resource development, and execution.

The report found that companies with successful social strategies spent a significant amount of time at this stage, building a firm foundation before moving on to the next stage.

Three goals dominate the planning stage according to Altimeter:

1. Listen to customers to learn about their social behavior. Before Dell launched its first social media presence in 2006, the company began by listening for nine months to what people were writing on blogs and discussion forums about Dell.

By understanding and working to address these identified needs through existing customer service channels, Dell was laying the groundwork to become the social organization that many social experts recognize today.

2. Use pilot projects to prioritize social efforts. With so many options available in social, which initiatives and channels should you take on first? Many social strategists Altimeter interviewed pointed to pilot programs that provided decision makers the “digital proof points” that connect social media solutions to solving business problems. These programs helped them prioritize which initiatives would have the greatest impact.

Altimeter cautions about being stuck at the pilot stage for too long though.

The toe in the water needs to quickly be followed with an all-in jump. If you dabble, it will be a failure. So make sure the strategy reflects the resources available and feel comfortable with uncertainty“, says Don Bulmer, VP Communication strategy at Shell.

3. Use audits to assess internal readiness. Several companies interviewed for the report conducted competitive audits during planning to understand existing capabilities, as well as to understand how competitors are and are not using social media.

One of the benefits of conducting these audits is to build the case for taking action — but care must be taken that the actual initiatives are accretive to business goals rather than a reaction to competitive actions.

Stage 2 – stake our claim. In this stage, companies move from planning into action. Simple examples might be launching a YouTube channel, establishing a blog, or a Facebook page.

Back in 2010 when I was helping UK Retailer John Lewis move from listening to this next phase, they launched their Twitter, Facebook and YouTube channels on the same day.

The goal of this phase is for companies to establish a presence, and see first hand how customers engage with you via social.

The report observed that companies in this stage that were successful in invested in 3 key initiatives – namely

1. Leveraging social content to amplify existing marketing efforts.

In these early stages, social is already being used in different ways by different parts of an organisation. Marketing may have a focus on creating and publishing content through paid and/or owned media channels to create brand lift. On the other hand, corporate communications may seek to employ earned media programs to encourage sharing that can dramatically increase traffic volume and audience reach.

One of the most important lessons to learn from this stage is that it is important to set a clear, integrated content strategy. A well defied content strategy — which outlines the governance, roles, and responsibilities — is a crucial piece of this strategy.

Most importantly, stage 2 is the time when funds need to be set aside to provide the resources needed to create content, an headcount to staff these positions.

As it to be expected, what is often encountered at this stage is the lack of integration with existing efforts. One social strategist interviewed for the report noted, “Social is brought in after the entire program is already created and sold into leadership — who then want to improve it with social. The marketing team will nod and smile, listen to us, and then they do what they want anyway.

2. Providing information to support post-transaction issues. By contrast, social media at Comcast is used primarily for customer support. The company anticipates potential service issues and proactively pushes out content — for example, ahead of Superstorm Sandy, Comcast activated all social channels to let subscribers know how to deal with anticipated disruptions caused by the storm.

3. Aligning metrics with departmental or functional business objectives. Once content appears in social channels, alluring engagement metrics will quickly follow — the number of visits, fans, followers, shares, likes, and retweets will lull you into a sense of success. It’s critical to create concrete goals for the strategy and metrics, even if they are softer metrics. Admittedly, this is difficult. Our survey data and interviews found that across the board, companies find this challenging.

Altimeter lists the following best practices to ensure the “presence” stage of the transformation maximises business impact:

1. Link your social presence to business objectives. Start with the priorities identified in the Planning stage and make sure that any presence you establish in social channels has a clear link to business impact and outcomes.

2. Pass on engagement — leave this for the next stage. Instead, focus on presence strategies where you are not setting or feeding expectations for response and engagement.

Translating this – “don’t bite off more than you can chew”. If you’re setting up your presence strategy and “staking your claim” you will very quickly find out what processes are broken (think delivery, customer service…). Until you are ready to fix years of broken processes, you will be paying the “twitter tax” until you get these fixed.

3. Develop sharable content. Develop content and programming that is shareable so that there is some social activity around your presence, and importantly something worth sharing.

You will also get a chance to see what pieces of your content resonates and what is of no interest to your community. Do NOT simply send out press releases from the press office – this will telegraph to the world that you have absolutely no idea what you are doing (and that the press office owns your social strategy).

4. Establish governance with an eye to the future. As your social presence grows, more and different parts of your organization will inevitable want to participate. To ensure that you don’t have 29 different Facebook and Twitter accounts within a year, anticipate how you will respond to the first requests to expand your social presence from within your organisation.

We’re only up to the second of six phases in the transformation, and probably time to give you the reader a break – so we’ll look at the next 4 stages in a follow up post.

In the meantime, why not download the report.