Social Business Isn’t Dead, It’s ____________

Social Business Isn't Dead, It's Just MarketingHere at IBM Connect 2014 in Orlando this week I’ve had a epiphany. Or perhaps, I should say that I have actually come to face the facts I have long known to be true, yet tried to forget. Or rather, I tried to ignore the facts by imbuing my support for the bigger idea that is Social Business, with a greater aspect of my soul, and my aspiration for improving humanity. Yes, I still have aspirations for a smarter planet, a smarter workforce, a smarter city and a smarter, more informed citizenry (h/t to our friends at NPR as well as IBM there). But Social Business was barely ever alive, so it isn’t dead, it’s just a marketing slogan.

No, this does not mean that I am disavowing my claims from my earlier post, “Social Business is Dead, Long Live What’s Next”. So, if you are one of the zealots hoping I have had a change of heart, you will be disappointed by what’s written here, yet I will encourage you to read on despite our disagreement. I suspect we agree more then you may even know, yet are still clinging hopefully to the symbols of these two words and the higher meaning it portends.

What I have come to realize by listening to sessions here, talking to consultants, asking analysts and speaking to real world users of the suite of technologies IBM calls Social Business  is what many have known all along, and what few evangelists are willing to accept: Social Business isn’t a solution to a company’s problem; it is an aspiration. Hence, the need for such energetic and strong willed evangelism. As I came to realize long ago, great products aren’t sold, they are bought. Which is why advertising is the tax companies pay for incomplete or poorly designed products. (let’s leave aside solution selling from this discussion for now please, as that is different)

When I recommended to my colleagues at Deloitte Consulting, at the start of my job in early 2011, that we pursue Social Business as our focus, instead of Social Media, it was based on an assumption I had made and an understanding that social media was the realm of creative and communications agencies more then consultants. It was an assumption that I now realize was only partially correct,  which was based on an incomplete understanding of the facts I used as the basis to make that recommendation. Yes, I made that decision in large part because of the marketing muscle and might that IBM was putting behind Social Business as much as their prior success touting eBusiness, but it’s also based on what I learned from advocating and educating people about Social Media.

At the time, I argued that we needed to call it SOCIAL media and not new media, and not, as my friend and respected colleague Steve Rubel argued, to just call it media. My reason was that we needed to accentuate and call attention to what was different about it: it was social, involving people sharing, and participating in conversations in public spaces. It has taken about seven years since those arguments in my opinion to reach the point that we can actually mostly just call it media now (though I am not opposed to calling it social media), but surely that realization has been evident for many months if not longer to many of you.

Perhaps with Social Business, the cycle has accelerated and we have reached the point where extra differentiation or attention on the social aspect isn’t needed even faster then before. The one thing I keep hearing in the keynotes, in the hallways and in my discussions with leading analysts is that most of what we are talking about is just BUSINESS. It was always intended to be about the new way we should be doing business. It was abut leaving behind the exploitative ways of old to embrace more efficient, more effective and more human aspects underlying the engine of our economy.

To this end, we do need a label, a symbol or a banner to rally behind; hence, we do need to call it something. That was really the point behind my Social Business is Dead post, to seek out and perhaps discover a better phrase. But none have materialized, and no appropriate alternatives that encompass the ideals has been suggested yet, though several exist which are at least partially true. This is why I don’t mind if we keep calling it Social Business. Or, that you might call it the Postdigital Enterprise. Or, if we talk about operating in the collaborative economy. 

There are probably few things I wouldn’t want it to be called, but my mind is mostly open. It’s a big transformation for the world, and that requires a big tent where thinkers and pundits and leaders can connect the proverbial dots and go about letting people see it as they do from their perspective, calling it whatever makes the most sense to them.

Leaders, particularly in large, conservative, publicly traded companies are not ones to buy something because they’ve been told it will make them feel better, they want solutions to their problems and clear proven advantages that will help them grow profitability and market share. But still, some very smart people I have met and have known still think a social business is one that participates in social media spaces effectively with their customers, responding to tweets that might otherwise tarnish their reputation if they aren’t there fast enough. Truth is, as it has been designed, social business is much more then that – it is, as several speakers yesterday said proudly, “not something you do, but a way you are”.

As I talked with colleagues here this week after I realized Social Business isn’t dead, it’s a marketing slogan, there was some head nodding and some very light resistance – but not much. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, and while it may be off-putting to some, it is actually just a label applied to a view of how the world should operate for the benefit of everyone, where organizations work to create shared value for our society. One society, under god, with liberty, justice and equal opportunity for all.

And in that spirit of freedom, I won’t mind if my colleagues and friends keep calling it Social Business, as even I do from time to time. But I will be on the lookout for a better symbol and phrase for the foreseeable future. Because as those speakers has been saying, and as I have been hoping, its more then a set of tools, its a way of being that is different than most managers in the old world can even comprehend.

That is worthy of our efforts, and worthy of marketing dollars to help shift that change, but its also worthy of us going way beyond the marketing, the messaging and the dogfooding, to find ways to help more leaders wake up to the new world order. It requires us to convene conversations that really matter like the one I had with Rudy Karsan in the press conference after Monday’s opening general session. (will share audio shortly)

What it takes is more conversations like the one we will be hosting at our next Work Hackers Salon later in February with Charlene Li at Altimeter Group’s Hangar. If you are in the Bay Area, I hope you can make it to talk to us about the fight of our lives, the fight for defining the future of work and ensuring it has a bigger soul that will drive an even bigger wallet.

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  1. #1 by JochemKoole - January 29th, 2014 at 08:29

    Thanks for this article, Chris.

    When you stated Social Business is a marketing slogan, I couldn’t help but to think of Gary Vaynerchuk’s speech, where he says marketers ruin everything (and that’s okay…).

    I hope, more and more people come to realize social media are not the magical solution to all of their challenges. It takes hard work to find out, how one can transform a company into an organization that is truly social and commercially successful at the same time.

    Looking forward to your future posts on this subject and will definitely share my thoughts on a new “banner to rally behind”.

  2. #2 by chrisheuer - January 29th, 2014 at 12:05

    JochemKoole good citation. Just because someone is pushing forward on an agenda in and of itself isn’t evil or bad, it’s when they pretend they are doing it only out of collective interest and disavow their personal stake in the conversation. It’s the hidden agendas, or worse, when they actually don’t believe what they are saying. I was pretty impressed with the speakers and leaders here who actually said it straight – what we are really talking about is a different way of conducting business (and ourselves) and that spreads more widely/quickly when its explained as the new thing. Hence the years of marketing with the simple slogan “New and Improved”. Unfortunately, often times, while it was new, it wasn’t improved, it was the same old same old.

    This time is different.

    That said, I saw some commentary elsewhere, from overseas and some conservative laggard industries that basically said “wait wait, its not over, its not just marketing, its just getting started!” This is totally understandable, and many I am a bit further out looking over the edge (or perhaps I jumped off already), but either way, I don’t think an honest look at the numbers, from surveys or sales, shows that Social Business is something that is being bought en masse. If we look back to the early successes of our social media agency we founded back in 2006 – we didn’t sell blogs or wikis, we sold communications solutions that increased speed, alignment and productivity while reducing fears of an opaque unknown. I think those lessons should be taken to heart here,

  3. #3 by kelbyj - January 29th, 2014 at 14:31

    Good post. I like where your head is. Social Business – in whatever guise it takes – is far from dead. I am a fan of losing social, mobile or wearable (in the future) as they are all just channels to do business. They are part of the connected customer experience that all brands are striving to deliver to people. They are the pipes to inform next moves for brands.

  4. #4 by moehlert - January 29th, 2014 at 14:43

    I’ve got this habit of trying to define things by opposition. By that rule, if I go with Social Business, that means we have to be able to find ‘asocial business.’ I can’t really find that so I’m going to have to drop back to “social business” in a “Web 2.0” kind of way – that is different than we’ve done things before. It’s not entirely accurate but as a generic product name – it could be worse.

  5. #5 by moehlert - January 29th, 2014 at 14:53

    You are spot on about it being aspirational.

  6. #6 by moehlert - January 29th, 2014 at 16:31

    My thoughts comparing social business to e-learning..

  7. #7 by NathanBrook3 - February 6th, 2014 at 08:23

    To start talking about social
    professionals, people that not only understand the concepts and ideas behind
    social media.

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