Social media – Is it a business tool or a kid’s toy?

It’s hard to go anywhere these days without bumping into social media in one form or the other. Many business leaders feel the urgency to understand the concept, but they are also trying to understand the real business value.  As a leader, it’s up to you to spot the trends that give your business a competitive, strategic edge.  This one is hard to miss, but at this stage, it’s even harder to quantify.

Still social media is an inevitable part of the future.  Why? The tools will come and go, the leading players will change, but the larger concepts related to the power of community, the opportunity for global visibility and the value of superior content are much too compelling.  For better or worse, businesses are going to start deploying social media strategies.  So rather than getting stuck on the merits of specific tools (maybe Twitter just isn’t for you), look at the larger picture.  There are practical ways to leverage social media that engage employees and customers, accelerate change initiatives and increase the value of intellectual capital.  It’s okay to be skeptical, but consider four points that underscore social media’s potential:

Why should you care about social media?

1.   Connection

Social media creates an unprecedented opportunity to connect with your current and future workforce/customer base.  The “millennial” generation lives online and socializes in virtual communities with shared interests.  If your business strategy depends on building substantive relationships in that market–with your future employees or customers, you have to play effectively where they play. But social media isn’t just for kids; the segment most likely to join Facebook these days: women over 50 with disposable income.

2.   Sharing

Social media is all about sharing information.  What makes this medium compelling to businesses is the ability to capture and leverage data—both quantitatively and qualitatively–to anticipate the trends and market shifts that affect business strategy. In a customer-focused marketplace, the ability to understand the needs, preferences and concerns of key market segments is extremely valuable.  Whether its employees, customers, consumers or competitors, everyone is talking and social media provides high quality listening tools.

3.   Knowledge management

Employees represent a substantial business investment. The power of communities lies in high level engagement with an interested audience.  By building effective relationships and harnessing this power in a deliberate way, you have an instantly accessible, experienced virtual team for problem solving and crisis management.  Engaged employees are more likely to share their knowledge and their experience in a productive way.  Shared legacy knowledge benefits the community and the company.  Added benefits, people who feel they contribute feel valued.  They are more likely to stay longer and add to a company’s bottom line.

4.   Change management

Engaged employees are more open to change.  A second real benefit to highly engaged communities; they serve as an advanced communication channel to alert your most engaged employees of upcoming change.  They spread the word and help you anticipate the impact on the larger population.  Since change is an inevitable part of the business landscape, companies that manage change better than their competition have a built-in advantage.  Change that happens effectively increases morale, accelerates adoption and is cheaper and less disruptive to your operations.

In a struggling economy, when most businesses are focused on the short-term, conversations about employee engagement, community connections and intellectual capital seem luxurious, maybe even indulgent.  But possibility lies in the future. While you take care of the immediate needs of your business, take time to consider the longer view.  The tried and true strategies for acquiring and retaining employees and customers today will remain. But new approaches fueled by social media will help you position your firm to grow along with new markets and gives you an extra edge over your competition.

Photo by Saulo Mohana