Choosing the Best Social Technology for Your Business
This piece is adapted from 10 Steps to Social Networking for Business by Darin Hartley (ASTD Press, 2010. Disclosure: I worked for ASTD for five years, and Darin was a co-worker.) While I’m finishing up my grad school semester, I’ll be posting some guest-written pieces. If you’d like to contribute, please email me a pitch with the social media topic and why you’re the person to write it at eva[at]evakl.com.
Social networking is the game changer for business. If you own or run a busines of any kind, whether it’s a solo practice or a worldwide enterprise employing thousands of workers, social networking is quickly becoming a key connection point between your business and your customers.
Starbucks, Dell Computer, Zappos, and many other large enterprises have invested millions of dollars to build sophisticated social networking systems. Smaller and individual enterprises are using free, off-the-shelf services—such as Facebook and Twitter—to create viable social networks that build brand loyalty, increase their customer base, and ultimately drive sales.
Pathways to Connection
The ways that organizations connect to the social networking world vary widely. Some companies simply choose off-the-shelf solutions and allocate appropriate staff to the project. Other organizations with specific needs or business goals choose to build, buy, modify, or license a complete social networking solution for their business.
For many organizations, off-the-shelf technology offers all the flexibility and features needed to take full advantage of social networking with and among customers and clients. For others, a custom-built system is best. But before making any large-scale social networking decisions, you need to first understand the bottom-line business goals for social networking and connect these goals with the potential offered by social networking.
In addition, consider how your social networking implementation will influence existing organizational systems and practices.
Nine Stages to Success
These steps and overall advice may be modified depending on your organization’s structure and needs. While you can move through the steps rapidly, don’t skip any. The process is intended to provide a business direction that will save your organization time and money and produce top and/or bottom-line value.
The nine-stage process can be used in a variety of business scenarios; it is deliberately broad and intended to help you make the best initial decisions possible for your organization. Some organizations already have well-documented decision-making processes, so incorporate these established ways of critical thinking into your planning.
1. Identify needs based on critical business initiatives.
Implementing social networking systems at any level must be linked directly to business or market value. Whether you are driving change from inside a business unit as an individual contributor, as a director of marketing, as a senior vice president of sales, or as the CEO, business alignment is not optional. Just because social networking is “cool” or other companies use it is not enough of a reason to garner needed leadership and stakeholder buy-in.
Your initiative must align with a critical business initiative or business direction. For example, if your organization’s goal is to grow market share among teenage users of your product, that strategy would clearly include Facebook or perhaps a custom-built social networking system, if appropriate.
2. Establish a core decision-making team.
Assuming you have established a clear business need, you need a team of assorted experts to make next-step decisions. Following are some important team members and their functions:
• Project sponsor or champion—usually a business unit manager or division manager who expects that social networking will drive growth or value or has a vested interest in the success of the project. In some cases, this might even be the CEO or another person from the executive team.
• Team lead—this is the person who will drive the project day to day, help manage the overall project timeline, and so on. This person is often the individual who had the original vision to leverage social networking to support some critical business driver and is passionate about its potential for the company.
• Information technology (IT) representative—invariably during the development of functional specifications and organizational IT requirements, someone from IT will be useful. In addition to technical support, this person can typically access the IT roadmap for the company, can act as a proponent for the initiative, and can help streamline the process.
• Functional stakeholder(s)—there may be other functional stakeholders that make sense to involve, including a person from human resources and representatives from other parts of the organization who will be directly affected. For example, you may need to involve a person from the sales organization if the social networking solution is intended to help make sales operations more efficient, or you may need a marketing representative if the social networking system will be used to drive marketing and/or awareness.
3. Develop core functional requirements
Most organizations leverage a standard set of technology applications, operating systems, and security systems. Any new system must be compatible with existing systems, and the IT department must sign off on your plan.
4. Develop a criteria matrix.
Based on the core functional requirements, the team creates a criteria matrix that can be used to assess potential social networking systems. This can easily be captured in a spreadsheet or a word-processing document. Once the draft criteria matrix is created, share it with some non-team members to validate assumptions.
Another person from the IT organization might be a good resource to review the proposed criteria matrix. Once the criteria matrix is completed, identification of solution candidates can begin.
5. Establish a list of potential solution candidates.
With the business need clearly identified and objective criteria established for the selection process, the next critical step is to identify a list of solution candidates. Be aware that many social networking systems exist, and new ones are created continually. Talk to peers and conduct some research, if necessary, to identify any new or niche solutions that might work well for your organization.
The key here is to not cast the net too widely, especially if your organization is trying to make a decision as rapidly as possible. Add the candidates’ names to the matrix and assign reviewers or a team to assess them. Facilitate a meeting with the reviewers and discuss each portion of the criteria matrix and the proposed solution candidates, as well as required timelines and any special instructions.
6. Review potential solutions against criteria and rank them.
Every solution that is considered should be reviewed against your criteria and rated.
7. Participate in product demos with company-specific use cases.
One key decision-making tool is a use-case scenario that describes how the end user would experience the custom-built solution. This is extremely important for custom-built solutions, because you are requesting functionality that isn’t typically available out of the box. You will want to verify the new functionality will work in scenarios that are representative of actual activities your company might experience.
Additionally, while you might participate in demonstrations for off-the-shelf social networking, the frequency of that is far less than with custom-built solutions.
9. Use an off-the-shelf, buy, modify, or build a social networking solution.
Depending on the specific solution and your organization’s goals, you now should have all the information necessary to make the decision to use an off-the-shelf solution, buy a solution, modify a solution, or build a social networking solution for your organization.
Even if your decision is to forego building a custom system, your thoughtful review will enable you to connect all the options for maximum efficiency. In addition, the decision-making process likely uncovered options, such as customization offered by Facebook, other social networking systems, or third-party providers that fit your business or enterprise goals.
10 Steps to Social Networking for Business offers worksheets to help you with these stages. Learn more and get a sample chapter, access the book’s blog, or join the Facebook group. You can also follow Hartley on Twitter.
For more social media, technology, and writing tidbits, follow me on Twitter, @evakl.
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