Engaging With Purpose: Interview With Brian Solis

Digital Analyst Brian Solis

At a time when everyone with a smart phone and a Twitter account boasts social media genius, digital analyst Brian Solis renews our faith in the existence of intelligent discourse in that realm. Author of Engage!, a comprehensive guide for businesses vying for success in the social web, Solis offers practical advice on how to build a social media strategy and measure its effectiveness beyond the template follower-counting approaches.

Webcopyplus recently stole a few moments of his time to ask some pressing questions on the minds of most businesses trying to optimize their digital reach.

WCP: Is a social media strategy prudent for any kind of business or are some more suited to participate than others?

Solis: At the very least, every company should start with learning. The thing about social media is that it represents the ability to organize and study sentiment, perception, activity, impressions and experiences, and that’s pretty remarkable when we stop to think about it.

Social media didn’t invent conversations and opinions, but it allows us to have access to what people think and share—right now. Businesses and governments have had this in the form of focus groups and town halls, but the resources required to compile the information were archaic. And I’m not convinced that beneficiaries of this insight truly saw the value in its ability to change course. Now we can grab it at any moment.

The thing is that insights are different for each business but many take template approach—Twitter, Youtube, Facebook—but if you listen (not just monitor for name mentions) and extract insights and trends, that should dictate your strategy and what type of content, leadership and channels you use.  All of this is dictated by your community and is true for any kind of business. You have a choice… do you let it touch you to do something significant or do you stuff that information into a report to demonstrate a change in activity?

WCP: How much time should a company allocate to social media engagement?

Solis: This is the question of the moment—what is the right mix of budget, resources and time? The answer lies in what you see and also the position you want to take in social. Showing up is free and the time you invest in it only reflects what it is you sought to get out of it in the first place. But in order to build a dedicated and active community it takes a significant commitment.

Start with a pilot program where you set out to accomplish something and see how much time and resources it takes to make that happen. We see so many companies bypassing that step and they find it difficult to measure success because they’re not sure what they’re doing, or what customers are getting out of the experience.

WCP: Should a business have one employee dedicated to a social media campaign, or to spread the responsibility amongst everyone?

Solis: It’s all dependent on the goals. A business, at the very least, should have a community manager and/or a social strategist; someone who is responsible for the greater conversation, with their ear to the ground, but also connected internally to design and execute.

I’m a believer in this… when you study outside activity, it applies to many departments—from sales to customer service to marketing to HR. Any division that’s affected by outside activity should also have a counterpart for the social strategist internally and make sure they are engaged and they learn and stay connected.

WCP: How can you avoid falling victim to the time-sucking properties of social media while still using it effectively?

Solis: You can lose yourself in anything. But, everything starts with establishing goals and objectives. Many businesses aren’t really thinking about it on a deeper level. Businesses are looking at goals from the standpoint of number of followers, but in reality those are soft metrics that don’t really show or demonstrate whether we’re on the right track.

I’m a firm believer in tangible goals. Do we want to generate leads? Hire new employees? Set out with objectives and build programs around that to see the impact you’re having—then you can assign time, resources, and budgets to it. We find that over time businesses will be required to have a full-time person and at least part-time in different departments. Then, as you see the ability to meet goals and objectives, you can make the choice to expand.

WCP: What companies are doing it right? Can you provide an example?

Solis: Dell was famous for starting in social media for customer service to address negative sentiment. They used it to address customer complaints and over time they’ve completely socialized all of their departments. Through Idea Storm, for example, they built products based on what people were saying and built infrastructure across the organization to deal with this feedback. Then came Employee Storm—where employees can say what they want to learn, see and do, that they aren’t getting internally. Almost every aspect of Dell’s business is now built around the principles extracted from social media and corresponding behavior.

WCP: Where do you see social media engagement trends in business heading? How do you think it will change in the future?

Solis: Social media will become a lot smarter and at the same time it will become a lot more natural. Not everyone within the organization is using Facebook and Twitter everyday and certainly not to the point where they are proficient. It’s becoming like email—it’s how you engage with customers, coworkers and peers. What goes in those channels is what matters, not the channels individually.

The real power is less about the technology and more about the change in culture that is going to affect every business. Today, we have a permeating culture of command and control where you operationalize departments and tune them to be more efficient, dictating messages that are pushed into the market. This is counterintuitive to social media, which opens up the doors internally and externally, creating a culture of change and collaboration. A business becomes more social when it has value to add and something to learn and changes as a result.

WCP: How can a business prepare for its strategy to evolve with the quickly changing social media landscape?

Solis: Social media will have to cross over from social to the executive layer, which is the real challenge. Social won’t win by itself. It has to align with a broader initiative within the organization. Social media right now is in marketing or service only.  Recent Altimeter Group studies run by colleague Jeremiah Owyang found that 50% of SM is run out of marketing department. You can’t change a business if SM is already siloed in one department.

It takes a change agent to recognize what is taking place out there and translate that into executive speak. How do we apply all of this to sales or information that will directly or indirectly impact the bottom line. How will we specifically gain a competitive advantage? It becomes less about social media and more about becoming a better business overall. We need to translate this to the executive layer and demonstrate the business value.

Check out the recently released second version of Solis’ book Engage!, which offers a more succinct package for executives, strategists and “change agents,” who may have less time to spare but still require insight to lead.

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