In the run-up to the release of the 2012 State of Corporate Social Media briefing, we will be publishing a series of selected highlights from the document. To find out more about the State of Corporate Social Media 2012, and to receive a free copy when it's published, head here.

The well-trodden path to social media maturity


My hypothesis, and it will be investigated throughout this briefing, is that there is a well-trodden path towards social media maturity. Most companies start with a groundswell of activity. Those proud corporate advocates within a company will begin to blog, or to Tweet, of their own volition. Almost incidentally, they will admit working for Company X, and may perhaps put it on their profile pages.

Eventually, senior management will discover this. Perhaps they have commissioned a consultant to investigate best social media practices for them. Perhaps someone has generated such a following for their brand (hello Scott Monty!) that it’s impossible to ignore any more. Or perhaps – as is unfortunately often the case – a lack of oversight is revealed as a huge mistake after a member of staff generates a brand crisis through some ill-thought out or otherwise mistaken message.

Either way, the company then tends to move towards a more authoritarian, top down model. At around the same sort of time, a company decides that social media is a valid marketing channel, and try to organise some form of marketing strategy. It’s free, right? Why not??

Social media policies are created. In some cases, legal teams get sign-off on tweets. In others, the whole thing is shut down. In others, social media teams are set up. There’s an attempt to control far more closely how a company uses social media.

The third (and at this stage, final) step is towards the hub and spoke model. It tends to be necessitated more as a reaction to external pressure in all but the most forward thinking companies.

With this model, companies create a small - usually 2 - 3 people - centralised department. Initially, they're responsible for executing social media strategy. But as time continues and social media starts to be used for much more than simply marketing, their role will be predominantly to teach best practice, orchestrate strategy and ensure each different department is using social media in the right way, and in concert with the company's key strategic goals.

How social media becomes far more than a marketing tool


Picture the situation: Company X has spotted various social media accounts have sprung up, linked to their brand. They decide to centralise messaging, for two reasons:

  1. Avoid crisis/Control Brand/Ensure harmony with broader strategic goals.

  2. Free marketing! Let’s start pushing out stuff and generating leads/sales!


Of course, to begin to push out marketing/brand messages, a company needs to set up branded accounts on the major networks. Suddenly @CompanyX springs up.

And yet, once that happens, all those customers disgruntled with CompanyX’s latest product have an opportunity to get in touch with them, and point out their grievances. They couldn’t get through to anyone over the phone.

Company X’s board has a heart attack. Not only are they clocking way more complaints than previously – but these complaints are in public! People have set up a @CompanyXPR parody account which is rapidly generating followers. All Company X’s potential customers can now see all these complaints, and think twice about buying.

And of course, the poor marketing team running the Twitter account don’t know what to do. They’re not customer service experts. Maybe they make a mistake, and exacerbate the situation. Maybe they are forced to spend their whole time working on social media – and crisis management.

The board decide it’s time to embed social media across the customer service team, too.

Suddenly, the cost starts mounting up – they’re paying for a few guys in marketing spending half their time on social media, that original consultant to come in and tell them stuff, training for the customer service team, and one or two people specifically tasked with ‘managing the community’. The marketing team are now pushing for a top of the range analytics system to track impact, as well.

They want to see results! So they start looking for ROI – and thinking about how social could make a meaningful difference in other parts of the business. Hello, product development – it’s worked before (Mountain Dew, Car company). Hello, market research – no longer reliant on a 200 person trial, they get opinions from all 20,000 fans.

Suddenly, social media is becoming embedded across the whole company. It’s no longer free, so the board expect results (in a language they can understand – no more rubbish about ‘likes’). It’s massively disparate – so co-ordination is needed. Hello head of social media. And all the other departments NOT receiving a boost through a clever application of social are casting envious glances at those that are.

We would love to get your feedback on this post. If you'd like to comment, you can do so below. You can get in touch with the author on @gnjohnson, or at nick.johnson@usefulsocialmedia.com.

To get a copy of the full briefing from which this excerpt is drawn, head here.

- - The photo featured in this article was taken by Rhys Asplundh, and was published on Flickr, here. - -