Social media has taken the world by storm. Organizations have recognized that social media presents a great opportunity to interact with customers and prospects, getting crucial information that can help the brand foster better and more personalized relationships.
While many organizations have either already built a robust social media strategy or are rushing to build one, social media is often considered the responsibility of the marketing department, or, in some occasions, a dedicated social media team. Yet, as leaders of their organizations, C-level executives have an important role to play on social channels.
However, as Richard Branson, the founder and chairman of Virgin Group, notes on this LinkedIn post, there is a "surprising lethargy" among the topmost echelons of organizations about using online tools, including social media. "Embracing social media isn't just a bit of fun; it is a vital way to communicate, keep your ear to the ground and improve your business," Branson says.
And yet, according to IBM's Leading Through Connections, a study carried out last year among more than 1,700 CEOs in 64 countries, only 16 percent of these top executives say they use social media as a way to engage with customers. Yet, CEOs expressed their beliefs that social media will become one of the top two ways to engage customers within the next five years, mainly at the expense of traditional media. "Social networking has and will continue to significantly change the way we do business. The way we collaborate with our customers will be transformed," commented the CEO of a U.S.-based computer services company.
If any top executive has the right to talk about the role of the C-suite on social media, Branson is one of them. With more than three million Twitter followers and more than two million LinkedIn followers, Branson is the poster boy for a social CEO. In an article published last month Vala Afshar, CMO and chief customer officer at Enterasys Networks, listed Branson second among the top 50 social CEOs on Twitter. Afshar is another socially active executive and, like Branson, believes that other executives should be leveraging this tool to communicate with their customers. As he tells 1to1 Media, "every employee in an organization, including the C-suite, should embrace social media."
Why aren't more CEOs on social media?
A recent survey commissioned by DHR International found that 60 percent of executives use social media one hour or less every week. The researchers attempted to determine what would entice C-level executives to become more active on social channels, and found that the vast majority-90 percent-would use social media if they felt it was helpful to their businesses, 80 percent said they would be active if they thought it was a better use of their time, and around 60 percent noted that they would use social channels if they better understood the benefits.
According to Ray Wang, principal analyst and CEO at Constellation Research, fear is a main reason why more C-level executives aren't active on social channels. Ragy Thomas, CEO of Sprinklr, agrees that fear is a reason for reluctance to engage social media. However, he says the use of social channels in the C-suite is on the increase. "One concern is that by being authentic, they will end up doing some serious damage to the brand, or their careers, by making a mistake in a very visible way," Thomas says. There's also anxiety that they're not being active in the space correctly and the content they're providing isn't interesting enough. Both concerns can be assuaged through proper social media training. "People haven't received the proper training," Wang notes. And just like other employees might be receiving social media training, so should the C-suite, allowing them to understand the power of these channels and also giving them the necessary confidence and knowledge to use them effectively. "A simple tutorial by an internal social expert or advice from the internal communications team goes a long way," Thomas says.
Several executives will hide behind the excuse that being active on social media might bring about governance problems. Having heard about social media disasters, they don't want to be the ones who say the wrong thing and be of detriment to the organization. However, very high profile individuals, including the U.S. President and the Pope, are active on social channels, showing that where there is a will, there definitely is a social way. Afshar believes the lack of participation stems more from executives' reluctance to commit to using social media. "Intellectually executives understand the value of using social media, but know that it takes effort and hard work." He compares it to a healthy lifestyle-we're all aware that we should exercise, get enough sleep, and eat a healthy diet, but many people don't follow these important principles in our daily lives.
The benefits of social executives
First, social involvement can help to build trust. While executives' concerns shouldn't be discounted, these should be balanced against the benefits to the organization. Wang notes socially active executives can help built trust in their organizations, showing that their firms are transparent. "People can see authenticity in communications and this is a huge benefit, especially for large organizations," he notes.
Second, social media has the ability to bring down the barriers of communication, even within a company itself. By being active on social channels, executives can gain insights both from their customers and employees, as well as their peers. "It creates the willingness to share," Afshar notes. Sprinklr's Thomas notes that it's a chance for customers and prospects to hear directly from the head of the organization.
While being social is a human trait, experts believe it's important to train executives in the proper use of social media. Not only will this help avoid the social media catastrophes that companies are so afraid of, but proper training will help executives leverage different social channels to the maximum and also determine which channels are the best fit for their personalities.
Afshar believes an integral part of training should revolve around helping executives understand why being socially active is beneficial, in particular to their organization. One way to showcase the importance of being socially active is showing executives what their competitors are doing, notes Steve Klein, product manager at Parature. "If your competitor's CEO has a blog with many followers, show it to them," he says. This strategy should allow executives to understand that social media is an important tool and while they don't need to Tweet every 10 minutes, they can find ways to share their expertise, showcase themselves as thought leaders, and help the organization retain a competitive edge.
A good way for executives to test the waters and become more confident using social media is to engage on internal social channels. "Internal social media can be a stepping stone," notes Constellation Research's Wang. "In the end, you need to walk before you can run," Thomas says.
Finally, while a social CEO would be beneficial for an organization, Wang believes that executives shouldn't be pushed if they feel uneasy. "If they're not comfortable being on social channels, don't push them because they will be clumsy," he says.
And yet, executives should be the ones leading their organizations to be successful and if social media is an integral tool, they too should be using it for the benefit of their companies. As Branson notes, CEOs have the opportunity to set the bar when it comes to using social media. "By ignoring social networks, they are potentially missing a trick," he says. Therefore, engaging on social media should not be discounted at the bottom of executives' lists, but should be leveraged as an important tool in their arsenal to improve the brand.