It hasn't taken long for social media to snowball into a trend that businesses can no longer afford to ignore. Social media editors, managers and strategists didn't exist a few years ago but are now crucial to companies aiming to stay on top of an ever-evolving industry.
While many acknowledge that social media is an important tool in spreading the message to the wider public, some organisations remain ambivalent about adopting social media to drive sales – and now risk being left behind.
This week social strategists from leading companies including LinkedIn, Deloitte and Fairfax Media gathered in Melbourne and Sydney for the Huthwaite Future Forum to discuss how social platforms are rapidly transforming the fields of sales and marketing.
Following the consumer
The fact that social media uptake is growing faster than anyone can keep up with is only one part of the story. Inevitably, as people spend more time in social environments online, and as platforms such as Facebook shift their own strategies to facilitate more commercial interactions, the evidence that businesses have much to gain from investing in social media is mounting.
To this point, Huthwaite's latest Sales Pulse survey revealed that social media is affecting people’s buying habits, as around 34 per cent of respondents said they harness social media when making purchasing decisions. Also, a recent Aberdeen Group study found sales teams who utilised social channels outperformed those who didn't by 15 per cent in achieving their quotas.
Fairfax’s social media director and forum panellist, Marie Sornin, says social media is transforming the purchasing cycle by inserting a 'sharing phase' into the process, and that businesses must adapt to take advantage of this. YouTube, she points out, is the second biggest search engine in the world – and it's social.
"Social is a validation point for customers to confirm their decision," she says.
"The question businesses must ask is, how can marketers and retailers facilitate customer desire to share with connections?"
A significant number of businesses, however, are failing to incorporate this potentially lucrative avenue into their sales strategies. Sales Management Association research conducted last year found 66 per cent of organisations surveyed had no social media strategy for their sales departments, and 70 per cent of sales staff believed they didn't have sufficient training in social media.
A two-tier industry
Tom Skotidas, founder of specialist social selling agency Skotidas, predicts the gap between businesses who are investing in social marketing now, and those who aren't, will create a two-tier sales industry within five years.
"I think social selling is one of the most corrosive forces in the sales world, because there will be a gap between salespeople who work with marketers and those who don't – and those who do will rise to the top," he says.
"You have to work with marketers and allow them to help you get your product out to market."
In business-to-business marketing at least, Skotidas recommends buying a list of prospective clients and mapping it to social networks, which facilitate more personal connections and therefore a much higher potential to translate into sales.
"You can actually match social, human users back to your prospective lists," he says. "I recommend a closed loop approach from social media to B2B."
Meanwhile, for a large and complex media organisation like Fairfax, the need for synergy between departments becomes all the more crucial as each respective area has potentially competing strategic interests in using social channels. Social media can be utilised in various ways, from delivering editorial content or driving subscriptions, to fostering audience relationships and providing a point of customer service.
Sornin says it's essential to design a strong strategy and implement it consistently across departments, ensuring the company’s message and branding is clear. She enacts this at Fairfax by putting decision makers from each of four key departments – editorial, product, marketing and commercial – in a room together once a fortnight (with Sornin facilitating) to flesh out projects and ensure everyone is on the same page. It's not always easy, she says, but it's important to work through disagreements.
Return on investment
Implementing a thorough strategy is resource intensive and organisations may struggle to understand their return on investment in some areas. For example, it can be difficult to measure the benefits of fostering audience 'engagement’ on social media, or in facilitating customer feedback – especially when there are other, more traditional avenues already available.
But digital relationship expert and forum panellist Danielle Di-Masi argues that good businesses have always understood intuitively the importance of investing in these areas. Having worked with the likes of Commonwealth Bank and Qantas Airways, Di-Masi agrees with Sornin on the need for consistency of message across all areas of an organisation, and says the key to successful implementation of social media policy comes down to training.
Di-Masi also says some organisations have too narrow a concept of what return on investment should look like.
"There is a very new, fast metric – and it's Twitter feeds," she says.
"You can refresh your Twitter feed and see what the public is saying instantly."
Such is the light-speed nature of online media and a constantly moving digital playing field. Social media is a goldmine for marketers, and can help two-fold through enabling the extraction of detailed customer data as well as through providing a channel for targeting campaigns to key audiences.
Yet a large part of reaping the rewards from social channels lies in the ability of businesses to adapt to such rapid changes. Those who embed collaborative, sophisticated social networking strategies across the board will be much better placed to take advantage of this fast-growing marketplace in the future, while those who fail to do so soon may face an ever steeper learning curve.
Hannah Francis is Business Spectator's social media editor.