Empowered IT executive leading social media change

When GHY International started exploring how it could best leverage social media, it didn’t anticipate the process would trigger a wholesale change in its business. Like many others, the company’s No. 1 goal was to diversify its sales channel and improve communication with its customers, says Nigel Fortlage, CIO and Social Business Leader of the Winnipeg-based customs broker.

“For the first 108 years in business, we grew organically,” says Fortlage. But the advent of collaboration tools such as Linked In, Twitter and Flickr gave GHY an “unprecedented opportunity” for strategic growth.

It was 2009, at the peak of the economic downturn when GHY realized it would need to make some significant changes, not only to survive the slump, but also to rebuild the foundation on which it could continue to prosper long-term.

“The whole reason we started talking about social media came from a desire to find new strategies to grow,” says Fortlage. As a consultancy, the company knew it had a unique perspective and valuable information to share with customers and prospects – if it were packaged and delivered in the way customers wanted. So they started creating and sharing whitepapers, linking them to case studies that supported the white papers and building an audience who was interested in the information.

Despite the company’s longevity and successful history, GHY’s executive team began with a brainstorming session, asking what seemed to be a question with an obvious answer, especially for a company that had been in business for more than century: Who are our customers?

Traditionally, the company targeted shipping and logistics personnel in its sales efforts, but they discovered it wasn’t the most effective tactic.

“Because the aspect of our business related to internal trade is focused on compliance and regulations, we realized our target audience was actually our customers’ key decision makers: the CEOs,” says Fortlage. GHY thought if could enable various channels of communication where its target audience could find valuable information on compliance and risk management, it could, in turn, increase both mindshare and market share.

From that epiphany, GHY began creating white papers – published on its blog – that spoke directly to the key decision-makers responsible for compliance and risk in its customer base. Beyond the blog, its primary channels in the social media space are FB, Twitter, Linked In, YouTube, Flickr and SlideShare.

“You can’t tell your audience how to communicate with you,” he points out. “They tell you how they want to communicate, and you have to be sure you are found as the source who holds the information they need.”

Leveraging social media is not about advertising products or services, Fortlage insists; it’s about having a two-way dialogue with your customers to better understand their needs.

“It’s not a one-way conversation where you’re blasting information like an ad; we’re trying to have a dialogue with customers to understand what their needs are and how we can help them solve their challenges by providing better information.

In most companies, ownership of the social media space falls to marketing, and GHY has pretty much followed that path, but with one interesting twist: Fortlage, who had more or less held the role of a “typical” CIO became part of the marketing team and took over responsibility for the company’s social media efforts. That strategy is a sign of a mature organization where IT leaders see themselves as business leaders, and that’s the critical change that needs to happen, he says.

“I’m part of the marketing team, and work with our VP of US operations, who’s responsible for our business development and growth strategy, which includes marketing and some aspects of sales.”

When Fortlage assumed the role a few years ago, he spent the first 18 months educating himself in the world of marketing, an area he admits he didn’t have much expertise in. He then dove headfirst into the social media landscape, which is what he advises other CIOs to do, especially if they don’t have any familiarity with the tools.

“You have to understand what you’re getting into and there’s no better way than just doing it,” he says. “I wanted to understand this world, so my first social media venture was on FaceBook to watch my kids. My second was on Twitter. You just have to start. You can’t theorize or strategize about how these tools can help your business if you don’t understand them.”

That, says Fortlage, is the fatal error many IT leaders make. The CIO should not lead this process, he suggests, but rather support someone such as the chief marketing officer who owns the relationship-building portfolio for the organization.

“Many CIOs continue to act as gatekeepers to a world they don’t understand. IT rarely provides guidance and is often the negative aspect of all of this,” says Fortlage. “They’re not leading the charge, and in most cases they’re the reason companies aren’t moving forward. It’s a traditional ‘I’m the gatekeeper and everything goes through my filter, and my job is to stop and block.’”

Fortlage leads a multi-disciplined team, which includes external developers, marketing staff and the company’s sales leaders. He leveraged the expertise of peer organizations that were willing to share their experiences when the time came to shape a social media policy.

“I got a draft from the American Speech Hearing Association, and we used that as the basis for our policy. Once I had a draft, I circulated that to the executive team for both the company’s Canadian and US operations.”

The policy isn’t around the issue of unblocking FaceBook or Twitter for employees, he adds.

“We’re trying to create a culture where people think about social media when they’re starting a project so we can enable them with the tools and information they need.”

IT Security is a key consideration for GHY, and as such a lot of the technologies they’re using are disconnected from their business systems.

Though GHY’s voyage on the social media train is still in its early days, Fortlage sees a huge potential to grow the business, attract new customers – and even new talent – to the organization.

“Our intent was to engage future decision makers, the Generation Ys,” he says. “They’re evolving and will go through their career path faster than anyone before them, and they’re actively looking for people in their network who will help them be successful. I’m planning for us to reap the benefits of these efforts five to 10 years (down the road).”

To date, Fortlage says less than one per cent of GHY’s customers are engaging with them through social media today.  It may seem like a slow start, but GHY is being strategic in its thinking around social media and rather than being the first out of the gate, they’ve opted for a more considered approach to ensure it meets its goals.

“I see an evolution in our organization’s maturity to move beyond measuring eyeballs to measuring engagement,” he says. There are more phases after that, but I’m hoping in three years, hoping to be in a position to be delivering and talking about the ROI of these channels of social media.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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