Growing your revenues – and reputation


As bewildering – and beautiful – as Velcro

Wikis, blogs, podcasts, social tagging, RSS, collaborative video, mashups – the list of goes on and on.

To many the world of social media is bewildering.

A lot of C-suite types shy away from the “huge zoo of unmanaged conversations” that social media software has spawned, says Michael O’Connor Clarke, vice-president at Thornley Fallis Communications, a Toronto-based public relations firm.

For many executives, he says, the very idea of free-flow, user-generated content over corporate networks – employees talking with customers, and suppliers, investors, partners, journalists all interacting with one another – is very unsettling.

Clarke understands these sentiments, but says they ought to be overcome – and quickly. And they ought not to deter companies from unleashing the astounding potential of social media – especially as a tool to build brand and revenues.

“True, the social media environment is unstructured, uncontrolled, and quite scary – but it’s also liberating.” And if used astutely and appropriately, he says, social networking applications can prove to profitable in more ways than one.

Clarke sought to demonstrate this during a presentation at the recent IT360 event in Toronto. His session was titled: The Lunatics have taken over the asylum – Managing the impact of blogging and social software in the corporate environment.

Clarke compared the amorphous, seemingly chaotic universe of social networking to the image of Velcro viewed under an electron microscope.

“The image – looked at one way is incredibly messy. But it’s also very beautiful. Social software is like that. It’s messy, but can help build exceptionally strong bonds, within your organization and outside.”

Architecture of participation

Many of the largest enterprises in the world have got the message, and are using these tools very effectively, Clarke said.

“IBM and Microsoft have been blogging for some time now. Microsoft has in the order of 2,500 – 3,000 corporate bloggers.”

Nor is corporate blogging the prerogative of tech companies. Businesses in every sector are harnessing the power of blogs – and other social media tools – very successfully, Clarke said.

“Edelman and other PR agencies are doing it; so is Boeing, The Chicago Transit Board, Whole Foods, Coca Cola, and Stonyfield Farm that produces yogurts and other Dairy products.”

Likewise, he said the belief that only young people blog is refuted by recent surveys.

“The average age of someone using social media is 40 years old, according to [analyst firm] Forrester Research. There’s a reasonably even gender split between men and women.”

The dramatic growth of blogs has also been documented by Technorati – a bellwether on the live Web – in its latest “state of the blogsphere” report.

Technorati currently tracks more than 70 million blogs. According to the report, around 120,000 new blogs are created worldwide each day – around 1.4 blogs every second.

Other social media tools – including wikis, podcasts, video, RSS feeds, mashups, social tagging, and more – are also growing at a phenomenal rate.

These tools have completely democratized content management and Web publishing, Clarke said. “Your average cubicle farmer can sit there and publish to the Web without having to go through the gatekeepers.”

Social software apps and services are forging an “architecture of participation,” Clarke said (citing a phrase coined by Tim O’Reilly).

He acknowledged that the prospect of having fresh, unedited, uncontrolled content zipping in and out of corporate networks can be pretty alarming to company execs and the IT department.

But if nothing else, he said, market exigencies, and the need to stay ahead of the competition may propel businesses to adopt and hone a social media strategy.

But to really benefit from such an initiative, Clarke said, it’s essential that prospective adopters study how such tools are already being used – and model others’ success.

The famous four

Communications – internal and external

Easy content pages creation and eding using blogging software and wikis is transforming corporate communications – both inside and outside the organization, Clarke said.

A wiki is Web site that allows visitors to add, remove, edit and change content; featuring easy linking among any number of pages, it acts an effective tool for collaborative authoring.

Clarke said his company (Thornley Fallis Communications) has already replaced its corporate intranet with a wiki that “everybody uses, every day.”

Likewise, he said at his previous firm Marqui, a content management and marketing automation software developer, all product management is run internally on a wiki.

“Whenever we updated a new build of a product, or tracked bugs, or wanted to go through the latest release notes, or to feature polling – we put this all up on the wiki. People could subscribe to changes on the wiki and it would notify them when there was new content. We didn’t have to push stuff out to people.”

Knowledge management

Wikis, blogs and some of the video sharing technologies are great tools to capture and institutionalize the corporate knowledge that’s walking out of the doors every night, Clarke said.

Competitive intelligence

He alluded to the so-called “dark blogs”, created by people solely to discover what their competitors are doing and share that information with colleagues around the world.

“These are usually blogs inside the firewall that the public never get to see, and are not counted among the 73 million blogs tracked by Technorati.”

Clarke said this way trumps the weekly e-mail blasts used when he was involved with competitive intelligence initiatives at a previous company, PC Docs (subsequently acquired by Hummingbird).

“Using a blog is simpler. It’s centrally archived, accessible to everyone inside the firewall, and much easier to manage and get to than email.”

Thought Leadership – market engagement

Blogging can have a stupendous impact on an organization’s brand and its thought leadership, according to Clarke.

“If the marketing guys haven’t already come to talk to you about blogging, these are the things that will drive them to do it.”

He said the opportunities for external market engagement are phenomenal when the CEO or other members of an organization start talking to people directly