I’ve been asked to speak at three different social media related events over the next few months and in each case I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the future of social media.
But here’s the thing. I don’t plan to talk about social media – not much at least.
What I plan to talk about is the future of business as I see it, now that social behavior has infiltrated every aspect of our lives.
I plan to challenge the thinking that social networks are really channels and, in fact, make a case for things like clarity, culture, content and method as the most important channels of a social business.
And finally, I plan to introduce how a vibrant community, perhaps the highest objective of any business today, is built not through social media, but through the confluence of a specific set of socially assisted practices.
I’ve always been attracted to word confluence. It’s a word most commonly used to describe the point at which two rivers come together. My hometown, Kansas City, was founded at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers and the visual of these two powerful channels coming together, to form something even more potent, suggests the perfect metaphor for how community prospers and grows.
I believe that community can only form around a business when the focus of a business is on cultivating and merging the following six practices or what I would like to propose are the genuine channel opportunities.
The graphic below lays out this path of thinking. The first three channels are decidedly internal while the remaining three determine how a community experiences a business from an external view.
Clarity is something I wrote about extensively in my last book, The Commitment Engine. What I discovered is that most organizations that foster loyal and engaged communities also have a single-minded active purpose for why they exist. Quite often the reason that drives them has little do with the actual products and services. This is a crucial starting point and one that’s buried in any discussion about channels, but I think it’s the kindling that starts the community fire.
Culture, or lack of, is simply clarity, or lack of, amplified. With all the talk about authenticity in social circles, it’s easy to forget that you don’t make this up. People that are attracted to purpose join the cause and strengthen it. Without a set of beliefs and corresponding guiding principles clarity becomes directionless. If I am to stick to my river metaphor this would explain the formation of many an oxbow lake. (A lake like body of water formed when a river changes course leaving behind a standing body in the old channel.)
This is probably the hardest element to explain but it’s the catalyst for the energy required to gain something that feels like momentum. Communities don’t generally form around, products, services or companies. They form around ideas, methodologies and processes that allow them to have something in common with others. To me this suggests the vital importance of creating and communicating “unique methods” and “points of view” that help people figure out how to think about their problems in ways that no one else is. When you can do this, and you give your way of thinking a name and set of steps, you create the potential for a shared language around an idea and that is fuel for creating a cause. All of a sudden you’ve given your staff and your customers a way to evangelize in a common tongue.
This is the place where internal and external streams come together and alter each other’s path in essential ways. Content is essentially the story that communicates purpose, culture, trust and method to the outside world. It’s the tool that gives the community a growing voice, for good or bad, and it is how you build a body of work that ultimately communicates a much bigger story.
There are many access points to a business and its offerings. Social media has certainly increased that number and perhaps simultaneously diluted it, but know this; your story must unfold in a total presence online and off. You must open up access points in social networks, email, advertising, and PR. You must create a culture of listening and responding. You must facilitate and collaborate at every turn. People will discover and join your community in ways that you’ll never consider on paper. Sometimes initiation is simply a matter of being there.
I have written numerous times about something I call The Marketing Hourglass. For me all the intention of the above channels is lost if you don’t also plan a logical way to move members of the community to act, buy and refer others. The framework above helps engage and attract members to your community, but you still must draw the map that allows them to engage at the highest possible level. This is how you turn a community into a direct revenue stream, but it’s also how you allow members to sort, sift and determine their roles. A community member that doesn’t purchase can, and quite often does, influence other. By creating levels of engagement you allow your community members to define the role that makes sense in their world and cultivate the complete ecosystem needed to foster complete community.
For now I’ve only scratched the surface of the implications of this line of thinking and certainly each convergent stream I’ve described will require its own action plan. It is, however, thinking about channels and communities in this big picture view that will allow you create the vision for a socially enabled business.