In this age of the empowered customer, a deliberate and planned approach to social media helps companies keep their fingers on the pulse of what's important to their customers. Companies that embrace social media as a central part of their strategy quickly realize social media is not about pushing out promotional materials to their audience. It's about having collaborative interactions with customers, prospects and even employees - allowing these companies to gain valuable insights, solidify long-lasting relationships and cultivate customer advocates.

Businesses with a strategic approach to social media have a competitive edge. They're tapping into customer information available in social networks, engaging with customers more quickly and robustly than their competitors, building business models that are flexible to accommodate and embrace customer change in near-real time, and leveraging cloud services and automation to give them more time to focus on customer communications.


When Social Media Becomes Strategic

The data is clear: businesses achieve greater results and satisfaction when they take a more comprehensive approach to social media. Rather than using social media as a single-point solution, they incorporate it into many aspects of their business: using it as a resource for data, a tool for relationship building and sales, and as a feedback loop for product improvements. A more comprehensive approach to social media allows businesses to combine what is effective with their traditional processes and what is effective with social media to create better processes to satisfy the customer.

The most common area for businesses to integrate social tools - whether they use them informally or strategically - is still marketing. But more businesses than ever before are integrating social into their sales and service, product development, and human resources areas. Companies that embrace social media strategically are far more likely to use social media beyond the marketing department. These "strategic users" of
social are able to get more use and satisfaction out of social media, and spread its value across different departments.

In the 2012 Social Business Study, 26% of strategic users surveyed said they were very satisfied with the impact their social activities had on website traffic, while 22% were very satisfied with the impact on lead/sales generation. Compared to 2011 data, this is a 137% and 144% increase, respectively. In other words, in 2012 strategic users are five times more likely to be very satisfied than informal users in generating traffic to their site, and more than four times more likely to feel very positive when it comes to generating sales leads.


How Small Businesses are Using Social Media Strategically

Our research shows that more and more companies are embracing social media as a strategic part of their business. These strategic users are increasing their use of social media in many aspects of their business. Here is what our study found:

Marketing: The 2012 Social Business Study indicates that small and mid-sized businesses use social media primarily for marketing - at various levels. Comparing strategic and informal users, strategic users were 25% more likely to have integrated marketing and social than "informals." The unique advantage of using social media strategically for marketing is that it can allow a small business to scale marketing efforts without significant increased investment by tapping into "external" marketers. That is, a business has the opportunity through social media to increase its marketing reach by cultivating and communicating with customer advocates who do unsolicited word-of-mouth marketing of a product or service via their own social networks.

Sales and service: According to the study, strategic users were 67% more likely to have integrated sales processes with social. Furthermore, strategic users were also 79% more likely to integrate customer service with social. Tellingly, compared to 2011, integration with CRM applications jumped dramatically with both strategic and ad hoc users (38% vs. 24%), with year-over-year growth of 375% and 243% respectively.

Product development: An area where strategic users are way ahead is in connecting social with product development, where they are 3.5 times more likely to already have integrated than informal users (28% vs. 8%). This higher level of product development integration coincides with strategic users having a 50% higher level of satisfaction with social, and based on these numbers, it probably comes as no surprise that those directly involved with product development are more than four times more likely to be involved with social media as their counterparts at organizations employing an ad hoc approach (18% vs. 4%).


Strategic Social Media Use Requires Integration and Automation

To get the most value out of social media, companies need to incorporate it into their core business processes and tie it into modern automation tools, such as CRM systems and customer support applications. But what does this really mean?

In the context of the 2012 Social Business Study, it means that social media tools and the use of data generated via those tools are strategically leveraged to improve business processes. For example, for product development social media is a tool to listen to customer ideas and feedback, and actually collaborate with social groups to test products and services. For sales, it's a way to identify leads and learn about customers. And for customer support, it's about responding to customers on social media and creating social advocates.

The only way to truly scale social media across your whole organization is to integrate it into your existing business processes. And the only way to do this cost-effectively is to leverage automation tools to connect social media at a higher level so that multiple areas of a business have access to the social listening and
engagement. For example, your sales, CRM, marketing, customer support, and product development systems should all use social media and they should all tie together.

Automation tools can help manage social, transactional and activity data so that it can be used to find insights, move the needle, and build relationships with customers.


Using Social to Understand Your Customer

Strategic users of social media are four times more likely to feel like they know what's important to their customers than informal users. And nothing may be more important today than knowing in near-real time what's on the minds (and in the hearts) of customers - current and prospective - as their attitudes, behaviors and expectations change rapidly. This monitoring allows a business to speak specifically to a customer's "challenge of the day" and provides a much greater opportunity to create connections and build relationships.


Social for Customer Service

Organizations more strategic in their approach to social media are almost twice as likely to have already integrated social into their customer support processes. And as the percentage of service inquiries coming from social channels increases, companies who integrate social channels into traditional support process should stand a better chance to meet the growing expectations they are faced with. That is, customer interactions that are mobile, real time and often more frequent, through multiple channels. However, the customer's philosophy about customer service more or less remains the same: that ideally a company will respond in a timely manner and should help solve customers' problems promptly. For businesses to continue to deliver the level of product/service that customers expect, it is critical that they are where their customers are (in social networks, on mobile devices).


Discovering New Uses for Social

Companies finding greater success in strategically incorporating social are expanding to use social media in new ways.

Recruiting is one great example of this. 2012 saw a 40% increase from 2011 (21% vs. 15%) in companies applying social to recruiting new employees. In fact, small businesses with a strategic approach to social were three times as likely to be very satisfied using it to find new employees as those with an informal approach (18% vs. 5%).

Social media can be a very effective tool for recruiting. For example, listening for brand mentions from people that have graduated with their MBA, or are looking forward to graduating with their MBA, is a way to see inside conversations that may be relevant to your hiring efforts - especially if they are saying that they are looking for a job.

One of my clients was recently successful in finding potential candidates for his company's junior executive training programs using this approach. He used monitoring tools to listen for several key words around the certain specific subjects that enabled him to identify a list of people to research further using a mix of social
networks and search tools. This led to a small group of people being contacted - via Twitter. Eventually, after a more traditional interview process following this "social discovery" of potential hires, two people were hired. So in sum, instead of having to rely on costly recruiters or headhunters and a long, drawn-out process, he used social listening to help reduce employee acquisition costs and maintain his business' profitability.


Social Increases Customer and Employee Engagement

Companies using social media strategically are able to integrate social more deeply into the overall organization. In fact, strategic organizations are three times more likely to have between 41% and 60% of their employees involved in social media than businesses using social informally. Also, they are 2.5 times more likely to have more than 60% of their employees involved in social media than "informals" (see Figure 2). With more people in the company involved, the organization is able to more effectively communicate with customers and prospects over more social channels than other organizations - increasing the opportunities for engagement.


A Social Strategy is the Key

Technology is changing the behaviors, activity levels, and expectations of customers. Successful businesses will adapt, incorporating social media into their business processes.

As the 2012 Social Business Study shows, the most important consideration in using social media is that it is employed strategically, integrated with multiple business processes, and managed in a way that enables businesses to glean insights and act on them appropriately.

In order to keep up with the changing needs of today's technology-empowered customers, companies will have to adopt a more strategic approach. Companies who are able to do so quickly will have a significant advantage in leveraging social tools and methodologies to create better experiences for customers and prospects. And this ability to consistently provide better experiences throughout all phases of the customer lifecycle should lead to more meaningful interactions, and longer, more profitable relationships.

Take the time to invest in a strategic approach to integrating social into your company. Start by building senior-management buy-in by showing them the 2012 Social Business Study data and explaining how companies that embrace social media strategically are more likely to succeed in their efforts. Then, identify how social media can be integrated into each of your key departments and build a plan for advancing the use of social, and know how you will use the automation tools, like CRM and social customer support apps, that will make this possible. Left to its own, informal or ad hoc adoption of social media will put your business at a competitive disadvantage. Today the opportunity still exists to get ahead of your competitors with a thoughtful and strategic social media plan for marketing and beyond.