“Social Networks for Business Advantage”

I spoke at the Communications Managers’ Association conference “Communications –  the Key UK Growth Accelerator” on March 9th; I had a 10 minute plenary slot.  The CMA is a trade association whose members are responsible for about £15bn of spending on IT/Comms. I’ve written up the notes I used for the talk and they follow.

I said I was ‘the light relief before coffee’  – talking about ‘Social Networking for Business Advantage’.  Two global brands and an ex Ofcom senior person spoke before I did.

I started by saying – of course, this audience will probably regard Social Networking  as “all that fluffy stuff your marketing and PR people may be waffling on about” – the audience’s body language said as much!  “Oh and a few geeks might be going on about it as well.”  You can just make them all go away; but it’s coming to something when the marketing and PR people  and your geeks are on the same side!  Might be worth thinking about a bit.

The question is, can we gain Business Advantage from Social Networking?  My approach was to talk about three things which make it important for me, and which might be useful in thinking further; it’s about

  • Being entrepreneurial; and taking a bit of risk in a new area
  • Avoiding being caught in the hype – but don’t let your predjudices (people Tweeting about what they had for breakfast for example) drive your behaviours
  • Being prepared to have a go at it  – for yourself; to see how it might work (or not!)

Being Entrepreneurial

I was described as “Entrepreneur” in the programme and I joked that the conference organisers had looked at my bio and thought “No idea what he does – just put Entrepreneur – he won’t mind”. You’ll also note that that they didn’t put “wildly successful and influential” in front of “Entrepreneur”.  Nor did they put “failed”.  I’m working on the former – and have had a bit of the latter (but not too much).

I set up on my own in late 2002 – and I now do lots of things.  Consulting with Complexity Partners where I work with Thias Martin and Neil Gregory and a network of other business partners.   I’m on the Board of CBN (a Coop) and Aquafuel Research Limited (a venture capital backed technology business).  I work closely with Amplified Networks (a not for profit) at the cutting edge of the use of social media and collaborative working.

I use Social Networks to sustain meaningful conversations with customers, stakeholders and business partners.  I’m actively using technology to generate realtime and near-realtime content using widely available technology; mostly for C4CC and Amplified.

Over the past 6 years or so, Social Networks have become an integral part of the way I do business.

One of Complexity Partners’ major projects is the Centre for Creative Collaboration (“C4CC”).  C4CC is a joint venture between the University of London, Goldsmiths, Central School of Speech and Drama and Complexity.  C4CC exists to support collaborations that can deliver both economic impact and public value.

The hypothesis is that by focusing the development of Creative Industry businesses – most of them SMEs (as one of the key outcomes of the work at C4CC), we can make rapid and meaningful economic impacts.  These businesses can grow faster (and fail faster!) and offer the potential for employment growth over and above that of “traditional” STEM based businesses.

As part of this, the management of the Social and other networks around C4CC is an integral part of the design.  We actively manage the Physical, Virtual and Social ‘spaces’.  We have a Social Artist in Residence.  We host London’s Leading Social Media Cafe (aka the “Tuttle Club”) and a number of other business, cultural and artistic and performance networks.  And we do this for reasons of ‘Business Advantage’.

The power of the approach I describe is that it brings the kind of people we want to work with into the space.  And we invite them in on their terms – not ours.  And it’s working.

Avoiding the hype

I warned earlier about not being caught in the hype; a collection of anecdotes (sometimes called ‘”case studies”) does not deliver actionable data.  However in using Social Networks we can both set sensible metrics and track them.  So, in the case of C4CC what are the data for our first 12 months of operation?:

  • Collaborative projects; target set 20; actually achieved 80
  • People involved in projects and events; target set 200; actually achieved 2,100

And we were told “There’s no demand” for this kind of neutral collaboration space combined with high quality support and facilitation services.   We also have 4 start-up businesses (2 emerging from projects at C4CC and 2 we have brought in from outside).

Being prepared to have a go

Over the past 12 months or so, interest in Social Networks from businesses has grown and seems to have accelerated over the past 6 months.  Much of the action has so far been in the B2C area with ‘Big Brands’ using Social Networks to promote themselves and communicate.

And there is massive potential in B2B and also in internal communications; Enterprise versions of Social Media tools for example.  But to capture the value in this, it’s necessary to ‘have a go’ and not leave it to the PRs and the geeks.

Recently I was at a Round Table discussion of the use of Social Networks by business; a scattering of Fortune 500 companies, technology companies; a mixture of operational people, public affairs people and consultants.  All discussing the impact of Social Networks on business; and one of the participants,  a very senior corporate public  affairs person said “The Genie is out of the bottle – it’s just that the “C-Suite” hasn’t accepted it yet”.

So the best thing to do – is have a go.  And remember, this is what we wanted – pervasive, ubiquitous, accessible IT/Comms technology.  Deeply embedded in our lives  and businesses.  So we have to deal with it by getting involved.