Social media at work. Really?

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Imagine you’re a salesperson at a big global firm and you’re paid well into 6 figures. You’re at your office, about to call a client, and you want to research her first. Who’s she connected to? Where has she worked before? What’s she up to these days?

Now imagine your firm won’t let you do any of that research on their office computer (but it’s okay <wink wink> to use your own phone to do it). And imagine your firm spends millions on training but not a nickel on how you can effectively use the most powerful client research tools on the planet.

That’s the state of social media at a lot of financial firms. Many firms block it. (You can’t even read content published by your own firm.) Most don’t train anyone. Most aren’t sure of what to do next. And most have their heads firmly planted in the sand, pretending everything’s okay.

This week, at a small event in London hosted by the Dachis Group, I got a chance to talk with a few other firms as to why that is and what we can do about it.

Risk, Responsibility, and Return

While some firms use social media for marketing, maybe even customer support, that only makes the lack of access and training more striking. For many firms the use of social media is limited to a few specialists sprinkled throughout the firm.

Perhaps the main reason for the lack of progress (at least in banks, pharmaceuticals, and other regulated firms) is that there’s too much risk. The rules are complicated (with plenty of gray areas) and so firms are confused about what they can do and say. Well-publicized missteps and scandals make them even more wary.

There’s also ambiguity as to who's responsible for helping business lines use the tools effectively. Instead, each team - marketing, recruiting, support - each figures out everything from scratch. For most businesses, that can be overwhelming and expensive.

Then there’s the money. What’s it worth? Without some clear benefits, it seems like a lot of real risk for uncertain rewards. And with no one assigned to figure it out firm-wide, it’s no wonder there’s little progress.

An approach we could all agree on

In discussing this with other firms, it seemed a good approach might be to sell different things to different audiences. To compliance, the argument is that “willful ignorance is not an option”. That they’d better fund an effort to sort out monitoring and training at a minimum or they’ll be at risk given people are increasingly using their own devices anyway.

For businesses, particularly sales, their best use of social media might not require posting at all. They can have the best rolodex they ever had by simply having read-only access to social media and some training on how to use it for client research.

We agreed that fear and greed can be a powerful combination.

Stepping back and moving forward

The discussion that night was strangely reassuring. Despite the lack of significant progress in using social media in financial firms, the absence of evangelism and the abundance of solid next steps made me feel there’s hope after all. After a lot of hype and little real results, most advocates of social media I spoke with agreed on some very sound, practical approaches:

  • They stopped talking about “social” at their firm and focused instead on the problems they were trying to solve.
  • They formed or sought to form a small center of excellence to sort out the tools, rules, and processes to make it easier for individual business lines to take their first step
  • They started with small projects and with people in business lines who were already advocates.
  • They positioned their social media work as simply part of a broader portfolio of communications and engagement as opposed to a distinct, disjoint effort.

It’s taking much longer than I expected for firms to help their people use social media effectively at work. But I’m more convinced than ever that it’s “when” and not “if”.