When enterprises consider setting up their own social media networks, it’s to offer much more than just a place for idle chatter or a technological replacement for the watercooler. In fact, many people now think that using social processes within the business will be transformative across the enterprise. That’s because putting social into business processes leverages the untapped potential of employees, partners, and stakeholders, while also returning control of data to the brand and improving customer relationships.

Jonathan Frappier, director of technical operations at LightWire, Inc., and an independent consultant and blogger at VIRTXPERT, dove into the enterprise social media waters with one of the first companies he worked for when it built a web-based community for CIOs. Ever since then he’s advocated their use. Frappier says the variety of names being used to describe these enterprise social media efforts really only denote differences in complexities and at their hearts they’re all about new ways for people to have conversations, instead of relying on just email.

He cites the advantage of opening up communication to everyone in the organization, across all departments, and how empowering that can be for bringing in new perspectives and ideas. Other advantages he points to include:

  • Creating a searchable knowledge base that everyone in the organization can benefit from even if they weren’t directly involved in the original conversations.
  • Allowing companies to connect with their employees much like public social media allows individuals to do on the personal level.
  • Offering a more modern document management system allowing collaboration on documents that used to be passed around in email or file sharing.
  • Expanding business intelligence efforts so every document, and even perhaps conversations, are indexed.

The public side of social in the enterprise

There is also a public side to enterprise social media where companies set up communities allowing the general public to interact with their brands. Rob Howard, chief technology officer for Telligent, recently predicted that companies will be increasingly shifting their social media investments from the public social platforms to their own, on-domain communities. That’s because businesses recognize the content created by consumers is invaluable, that consumers want online customer service, and company websites are the number one sales resource. He said:

“What we’ve heard from a lot of our brands that we’ve been talking with is that, while they do agree with our philosophy that Facebook is great from a consumer point of view and from a personal relationship point of view, it’s not where a lot of these consumers are going to make decisions. Secondly, a lot of these organizations care very deeply about data ownership and as these customers are going through the process of sharing information — whether it’s asking questions, answering questions, providing data about their experiences with the brand — brands want more control and ownership over that.”

Howard espouses the Telligent philosophy as being one where social is not viewed as a destination but rather as a set of experiences. He sees social categorized into social media (Facebook, Twitter), social networks (LinkedIn, Chatter, Yammer), and social communities (the company interface with customers), and he says that businesses will have to balance their investments across these multiple channels. He maintains that social communities are one of the most valuable channels to invest in because it’s there that companies can control the brand, the data, and manage the customer experience much better.

He cites information from Forrester dealing with the customer experience management lifecycle claiming brands have thought of the customer lifecycle as being a linear process. Companies would take each activity in the cycle and segment them out to different units in the business. Typically though, the disconnects with the customer occurred because oftentimes the various business units didn’t interoperate with each other.

Howard says new evidence suggests the customer lifecycle isn’t linear, but rather circular, and made up of repetitive processes where customers continuously come in and engage with the brand. Those different aspects of how the brand touches its customers through sales, marketing and support, are interrelated, and so a lot of brands see social as the way to connect all those interrelated experiences together.

Understanding enterprise social pinch points

As with anything there are always challenges. Frappier, speaking mainly about internal social media efforts aimed at employees, partners, and stakeholders, says just using the name “social media” creates hurdles since many people have a limited idea of its usefulness. Beyond that he cites the difficulty in tracking the benefits of the investment and finding a solution that meets the needs of all the various groups, although he says there are vendors now that offer an app-centric approach to building these networks.

Howard says the challenges he sees include:

  • Dealing with negative reactions to the brand;
  • Growing successful communities; and
  • Getting organizational commitment.

Regardless of the name used to describe it, social media in the enterprise offers a very different way of collaborating, managing customer relationships, and finding new value in the infinite stream of data companies are creating and managing. Many are betting “the social way” will be the next big step in the continual evolution of how business is done.