The Economist Summit Feedback

by Justin Hunt

I was kindly invited to speak as part of a panel discussion at last week’s Insurance Summit organised by The Economist.

The theme for the panel discussion was ‘Social Media and Its Discontents’ and was designed to take a closer look at some of the key developments that are looking to shape the insurance industry over the near future.

The session considered the fact that the evolution of social networks has presented organisations with a potential ally. When carefully considered, social media strategies can provide a host of rewards in brand management, reputation and customer engagement.

However as social media networks have also demonstrated an anarchic ability to spread ruin, revolution and redress, the panel was asked if the risks and opportunities created from social media can ever be managed.

The session was moderated by Tom Standage, Digital Editor, The Economist. Also on the panel were: Amanda MacKenzie, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer for Aviva; and Pete Markey, Chief Marketing Officer for RSA.

It was a lively discussion and Tom, Amanda and Pete had some fascinating views. The key points I made were that I feel social media presents an opportunity for the insurance industry to reinvent itself and restore trust in its services. Social media is rapidly becoming social production and in a networked economy, the real value is enabling customers to collaborate with you in creating, distributing, marketing and supporting your products.

I also pointed out that the arrival of so-called digital natives within the workplace (I am a digital immigrant, I am learning the language) will have a profound impact on the structures of insurance companies and how they communicate. Young people – who are highly tech literate – entering the workplace will expect and demand different methods of communications using social networking tools. This further presents an opportunity for the insurance industry to reinvent itself and use these tools to tap into the insights and information of their employees.

Introducing Social Media into the Workplace

There are a bewildering range of platforms out there for companies that are looking to introduce new collaborative tools into the workplace.

Picking the right tools is critical, and especially the ones that will appeal most to your team. There is no point having a platform which no ones wants to use. If you have a platform which starts getting populated quickly then you know you’re onto a winner.

Of course, you need to architect it so that it supports business processes and goals, and ensure it is managed properly. However, if people don’t want to use the tools you offer then you are in a difficult place. So it is important to open up the vendor testing process to as many key stakeholders as possible, so they can review and test the products before you move to the next stage which might be, for example, proving the concept within the business. Inviting vendors to do webinars is a good idea, and asking them in advance to tackle your team’s questions is valuable too.

In our previous edition of Social Business magazine, we touched on some of these issues. If you did not receive a copy, you can download it for free or read some of the articles on The Social Media Leadership Forum site.

Here is the article on social media within the workplace. Hope you find it interesting and useful reading. We are currently working on the second edition of Social Business magazine, and it is interesting to see how many companies are moving on… We will let you know when this is out.

Time to re-design customer service for the social networking age

Traditionally, customer service has predominantly been where you go to complain, or to get  a problem fixed.

The new breed of companies that are fully engaged with the Social Web have a different perspective. Some believe they have failed if you have to contact customer service at all. They pride themselves on elegant design, ease of use, fast service, clear  information and efficient fulfillment of orders. I am thinking of companies like Amazon, for example.  Why can’t more companies be like Amazon?!!

If you are not providing a good product or service, there is nothing stopping people from quickly spreading damaging information online through the networks of their friends and colleagues. It does not matter if you are a B2B or B2C company. We all share the same fundamental communications platform (ie. the internet), which  can be accessed through an increasing array of devices 24/7, and at increasing speeds.

The ability to easily and freely see what people are saying about you, and about your products and services is, I think, reassuring. It is a potential gold mine, as you can quickly see what you need to improve. The information is there for you. To ignore it would be foolish.

Some people ask about the ROI of social media. Research online is a fraction of the cost of traditional market research techniques, and is often more natural. It is not shaped by pre-defined questions, which makes it more authentic and meaningful.

The rise of the social customer is part of a rising cultural trend where people want companies to be more honest and open with them, and also to show more integrity. The technology is simply accelerating that process.

And social customers are not passive. They are creating and sharing information. They are in a strong position to produce and share knowledge. The next generation of customer service will be less focused on solving customer problems and be more about working in partnership with customers.

Enlightened and successful companies will collaborate with their customers to create, produce and share new products and services. Social media will become social production. Companies – as many are starting to do – will learn to tap into the intelligence embodied in the  networks of their customers, in order to gain fresh insights and make smarter and more successful decisions.  To isolate yourself from your online customer networks will be commercial suicide.

Customer service using the opportunities afforded by the social web has the potential to become the engine of innovation and growth for companies. By giving your customers a voice in the creation, marketing, distribution and production of products and services will give you  significant competitive advantages.

These themes are explored further in the report which we created and produced with First Direct on the Future of Customer Service. We launched the report through the Social Media Leadership Forum which is looking at how leading
organisations can innovate with social media both internally and externally for their future success.

You can read the report in full and hear podcasts about the themes raised by the report here. I would encourage you to do so, to help you prepare for your future success.

Learning with The Economist

We are all looking forward to hearing from Nick Blunden, global managing director and publisher of The Economist Online, who will be talking with members of the Social Media Leadership Forum in London on February 22nd.

Nick will be sharing insights into developing and implementing a social media strategy for a global customer base.

In particular, he will be discussing the challenge of tailoring a global strategy for different markets.

It will be fascinating to learn how The Economist is continuing to build its influence online, listening and engaging with readers around the world.

The Social Media Leadership Forum is designed to enable leading organisations to tap into the insights of their peers, in order to help them shape successful internal and external social media strategies.

Companies who have joined most recently include: BUPA, The Compass Group, Johnson Matthey and Freshfields.

The Social Media Leadership Forum was founded by ItsOpen in 2009; and it is run on behalf of the members by ItsOpen.

Facebook the Future?

Here are a few thoughts on the future of Facebook as it approaches its IPO:

Looking ahead, Facebook might look to turn its credits into a currency that could be accepted on the web, and possibly off it too. It could seek to compete with the likes of PayPal.

Having a currency could be useful if it starts to develop the buying and selling of goods through social networking sites. Firms such as Procter and Gamble have set up virtual shops on Facebook, and it will be interesting to see if ‘social commerce’ takes off.

Also, there is the possibility that Facebook might use the cash generated from its IPO to reach a partnership with a hardware company to create a ‘Facebook Phone’ with a Facebook social operating system.

Are We Just Products For Advertisers?

Facebook is proud to ‘help you connect and share with the people in your life’. Alas, these people can also include your worst enemies. 

With more than a tenth of the world’s population linked on Facebook, alarm is growing about the uses to which people’s information can be put. It’s not just advertisers seeking to target products and employers checking out the true lives of new recruits. Facebook data is also turning up in court cases, very much to users’ detriment.

For litigants the site is a goldmine of possibilities, for the things that some users post about themselves are frankly reckless. In one case, a 28-year-old Canadian who claimed he had lost his social life as a result of a car accident was found to have posted photographs of himself hosting parties. In another, a woman boasted online of her penchant for sado-masochistic sex and illicit drugs, a boon for  her ex husband who used it to help win custody of their child.

Users are in a weak position to protest, because they aren’t the customers – they’re the product. “Boardroom discussions at Facebook are not about how to help little Johnny make more and better friendships online; they are about how Facebook can monetise Johnny’s ‘social graph’,” points out author Douglas Rushkoff.  Facebook’s real customers are the companies who pay them for this data and use it to help them sell us their products, he says.

But the perception is growing that Facebook is being less than honest about its use of personal data. In Europe the company has faced an online campaign, started by an Irish citizen who was incensed when he discovered that it still held reams of controversial personal data which he was certain he had deleted.

Users may yet be saved by officialdom. In the US Facebook has just settled federal charges that it violated users’ privacy by getting people to share more information than they agreed to when they signed up. It must now let independent auditors review its privacy practices for the next two years, and consult users before changing its data policy again. The European Union meanwhile has plans to clamp down on the use by social networking sites of information on users’ sexuality, religious beliefs and location.

It remains to be seen what the effects will be, if any. Yet the pressure on Facebook to squeeze profit from users’ data can only grow. The company is expected to pull in an estimated $4 billion in worldwide ad revenue this year, and this could go up to $6 billion in 2012.  For the moment its goal has been to keep growing, but if it soon goes public, as expected, it will have to satisfy shareholders’ expectations of profits.  The battlelines are being drawn for what is likely to be a protracted and messy conflict.

(From Social Business, Q4, 2011)

Social Media in the Workplace

Many companies have been introducing social media technologies into the workplace. However most have still to discover how to use them to create true competitive advantage and impact the bottom line. So what are the challenges that need to be addressed?

There’s no shortage of social media tools available to businesses, from blogs, content aggregators, wikis and personal homepages, to virtual spaces and social networks. But although these could potentially  transform the way they work, the reality is trailing behind the hope. Adoption has been markedly slower than in the public domain, with most companies dipping their toes in here and there.

One thing’s for certain: trying to replicate consumer networking sites and social tools behind the firewall won’t work. What’s needed is an holistic approach, identifying the business, cultural, and technical factors to consider. So what are the challenges, and how can they be overcome?

Busy staff need encouragement and a rationale for changing the way they work. They are resistant to learning new behaviours if they can’t see a clear benefit. So an essential first step is to find out what stops people getting their jobs done and what are the key business drivers for change. Once the problems are well understood, the search for the solution can begin.

One problem is that most people already feel overloaded with information and can spend hours sifting through irrelevant content. This makes them less productive: if they are prone to make bad or ill-timed decisions they may be unable to maintain desired standards of quality. A danger of social computing is that it can worsen this situation. Anyone who uses Twitter knows that it is impossible to keep up with all information streams.

With the continued spread of social media tools in the workplace, it’s critical that staff are trained to use them well. Otherwise they will simply shift the overload from one channel – typically email – to others.  They need to be shown how they can manage their activity streams. They need to make smart choices about who or what to follow and how to stay abreast of items that flow through their dashboard. This new skill should be complemented by intelligent filters built into the social computing platform, based on subjects and keywords that can assess an item’s potential relevance – precisely the types of filters Google uses when it dishes up personalised search results.

Quick wins may involve the use of blogs and wikis. Group blogs can be much more effective than email for informally sharing knowledge, a substitute for the generic ‘does anyone know?’ email. Wikis can be used to create informal FAQ resources on different areas and topics. They can also provide more structured know-how resources, for example a section-by-section guide to a code or process. Even using a wiki page for something simple like the agenda for an online meeting can cut down on email traffic and save time.

Clearly, another major concern is around privacy and security of information.  Social technology tools can track what staff are doing online and with whom, generating new information based on patterns of behaviour. This raises concerns for some about their privacy and they may want to opt out. Meanwhile enterprises still have their secrets, and want to be sure that sensitive information is seen only by those who need it.

In some cases, social tools end up creating new information silos that don’t link in a meaningful way to core CRM or ERP systems. What’s needed here are social systems that are an integral part of all the applications people use daily to get their work done.  Amongst other things, the systems should have access to existing internal directories, so that staff don’t have to keep their profile page up-to-date or leave their personal dashboard to search the database for relevant information.

Companies looking to offer a one-stop service to their employees will let them pull in their personal streams such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr into their personal dashboard. Given the blurring of work and personal boundaries for many professionals, and their desire to build relationships with those whom they do business, this should at the very least be a point for consideration.

Finally, the tools must be embedded into the flow of everyday work. It’s important to remember that social computing is about people, not technology. Don’t think that social technologies will be as popular on the inside of your company as they are in the public domain. The tools must underpin a genuine need in the workplace and be embedded into people’s everyday work processes.

If the use of social media tools means asking staff to step out of their daily flow of work, and codify and share something about what they do, then they will be hard to engage. But if it can help them do their job better then they can really work.

(From Social Business, Q4, 2011)

Twitter chairman on time juggling

Twitter’s Jack Dorsey explains how he organises his busy schedule into themes… Short and useful.

What every CEO needs to know about the cloud

Many criticisms of cloud computing are ill-informed and overhyped, giving executives cover for not investigating the potential of the technology. This is a mistake.

Andrew McAfee argues in the current edition of the Harvard Business Review that the cloud is a topic CEOs must engage with, because many of the executives they typically delegate technology decisions to are precisely the wrong people to offer unbiased guidance.

Most IT departments today are stretched thin with maintenance activities, leaving precious little bandwidth for development and new initiatives. The cloud offers a way for companies to pursue opportunities nimbly and, in many cases, cost-effectively, McAfee argues.

Typical concerns about cost, security, and reliability are red herrings because those concerns are comparable for on-premise approaches.

Digital Strategy vs Social Strategy

The November edition of the Harvard Business Review argues that most companies do not succeed in online social platforms because they merely import their digital strategies to these venues.

Mikotaj Jan Piskorksi says that the primary advantage of a social strategy over a purely digital one is in tapping into how people really want to connect with other people, not with a company. A business with a successful social strategy helps people form and strengthen relationships in ways that also benefit the company.

Digital strategies broadcast commercial messages and seek customer feedback in order to facilitate marketing and sell goods and services.

Social strategies help people improve existing relationships or build new ones if they do free work on the company’s behalf.

Many companies are still prisoners of digital strategies which means they are failing to harness the real value of social media for their organisations.

They are failing to treat users of social networks as unique individuals and are broadcasting mass commercial messages which do not lay the foundations for generating friendly and long term commercially valuable relationships.

Zappos, owned by , which is regarded as one of the world’s leading companies when it comes to using social media for customer service, does not have masses of followers on Facebook. Talking privately to members of the Social Media Leadership Forum last week, they explained that they wanted to treat all of their customers as friends. They are looking for genuine long term customers for life – high-quality, committed followers; and not for large numbers of ‘likes’ for the sake of a superficial, short term headline-grabbing result.