Corporate Social Strategists: Cheerleaders, Transformationists, and Strategic Planners

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The role of corporate social strategists is changing as quickly as the social landscape. Here's how they keep pace while keeping their companies connected.

Southwest Airlines Social Strategist Christi McNeill describes her role as "the cheerleader and advocate" of the airline's social media activities. Today, McNeill's responsibilities consist of monitoring the social media landscape and responding "to our customers and fans who are interacting with us online." McNeill acknowledges that her responsibilities and role may be quite different tomorrow, and she's not alone.

"In five years this role doesn't exist," confided one social strategist to Jeremiah Owyang, an industry analyst for Altimeter Group and the author of the report "Career Path of the Corporate Social Strategist." The report, a must-read report for corporate social media professionals, provides a snapshot of the nature, pressures, and challenges of a role that could:

  • Evolve itself out of existence ("We don't have a 'verbal communication strategist' or an 'email planner' now," another social strategist lamented to Owyang);
  • Become a stepping stone to executive positions, particularly those related to customer experience; or
  • Become chained to social media help desks overwhelmed by requests as the use of social media becomes ubiquitous throughout the extended enterprise.

The future of the role may be less important than how quickly and effectively organizations adapt to a social media landscape that customers are streaming to so that these firms can better mitigate strategic risks and better exploit strategic opportunities.

To succeed on that count, businesses will need to carefully mange how they craft social media strategies, as well as how they recruit, compensate, and develop the professionals they charge with executing these strategies.

The garden of forking paths

Despite the looming possibility of positional extinction, the short-term growth of social strategist titles - including community manager, social media director, manager of emerging media, digital engagement manager, and related variations - seems assured. Seventy-nine percent of Fortune Global 100 companies rely on at least one social media platform and 20 percent of these companies use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and blogs to engage customers, according to a 2010 Burson-Marstellar report.

"The anecdotal evidence for the growth of the social strategist role is overwhelming," reports Ryan Krouskup, a partner with Entermedia. "Beyond the use of obvious social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to interact with and influence their customers, we see social strategists encouraging customers to participate via crowdsourcing."

Clothing-maker prAna and Harley-Davidson are among the growing number of companies integrating crowdsourcing into their traditional marketing efforts. PrAna, for example, is recruiting customers and fans to design a T-shirt for its fall collection. Harley's more ambitious foray into crowdsourcing produced the "No Cages" video advertisement, conceived by Kentucky resident Whit Hiler, posted on YouTube, and then discussed exhaustively by social media and traditional advertising experts.

"Crowd-sourcing is a great example of the increasing breadth and depth of organizational social media," Krouskup adds. "In my mind, it validates a growing need for the involvement and expertise of social strategists."

Social media consultants and authors have proven that they can debate social media and the role of the corporate social strategist until the (purple) cows come home. As Altimeter's Owyang jokingly tweeted from a social strategist conference in February: "How many Corporate Social Strategists does it take to screw in a light bulb? 100: one to screw it in and 99 to join the conversation."

However, if companies are to mine social media conversations for tangible sales, marketing, and risk-management opportunities, Owyang and Adam Metz, director of social business for The Pedowitz Group, suggest that they should hire a social strategist who can help their firm strike the right balance between the tactical and strategic elements of social media strategy. "There are two kinds of folks who work with the social customer: the strategist, and the execution team," notes Metz. "Each role has a unique set of challenges. The execution team faces challenges from two sides, the culture of organization they support and the needs of the social customers they work with." The strategist, he adds, must first and foremost ensure that the social media strategy reflects current business challenges and objectives and not past challenges.

If social strategists are not sufficiently proactive in addressing demands from customers and colleagues, Owyang warns in his "Career Path" report, they can risk becoming reactive and operating as a more of social media help desk Sherpa than as a strategic steward of a social media program.

Staying on track

Aneta Hall is one example of a strategic steward. As manager of emerging media at Pitney Bowes, her primary role is helping to "understand and analyze the landscape of emerging media" while helping the company benefit from engaging customers within social media platforms, she says. Hall, who leads an internal Social Media Council at Pitney Bowes, emphasizes that she invests a significant amount of time teaching colleagues from a wide range of functions and business units how to engage in social media in an effective, appropriate way.

Hall arrived at her current role through a technology route; her previous positions at Pitney Bowes include Web information architect and Web project manager. Southwest's McNeill has a public relations background in the travel industry. REI Manager of Digital Engagement Jordan Williams previously headed the outdoor gear retailers advertising and marketing strategic planning programs.

As diverse as their backgrounds may be, the common thread is keeping that strategic focus despite potential distractions. The proliferation of the role combined with the explosive growth social media platforms make it easy for new social strategists to get caught up in the bells, whistles, and excitement of the technological facets of corporate social media (sort of like IT implementers with their ERP solutions in the mid-1990s, only much, much more exciting). But they shouldn't, asserts Williams of REI.

"The way to make an impact is absolutely on the strategic planning and organizational development side of things," Williams says in an interview on The Online Community Report. "It's not sexy and it's certainly not easy, but ultimately, the real impact if you work on the brand side is found through fundamental organizational transformation."

That transformation, Pedowitz Group's Metz says, is a straightforward one: helping organizations shift from an approach that favors company-centric customer engagements to one that favors customer-centric engagements.

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