Social media gave people licence to create their own connections. Information streams then evolved on their own. If social media evolves to become a major platform for e-commerce, as many analysts insist it will do, it poses a challenge.

So how do you respond to this creeping socialisation?

E-commerce and social media have come together and spawned a new generation of technology.

This offspring, social commerce, has inherited the user-friendliness of its social parent and the strategic importance of e-commerce and is a new challenge and opportunity for CIOs.

There’s little the IT department can do about the increasing consumerisation of technology, as analysts at Gartner and IDC testify.

But social commerce gives the CIO the chance to run in front of the parade and pretend to be leading it. The alternative is for your role to become a sort of hardware and software reviewer.

Ignore at your peril
Social media has caught on because it’s pervasive and spontaneous. Like social media, so-called Facebook commerce is now passing under the radar of the IT department.

“And yet it’s treated as an arm’s-length phenomenon by traditional CIOs and IT organisations,” says Gartner analyst John Mahoney. “New approaches are needed to harness their potential,” he warns.

A Gartner survey found that social business was part of the fabric of all enterprises but that many CIOs and IT organisations lack expertise and engagement with social media.

They need to get involved, but that calls for social skills, says Mahoney.

“Engagement and exploitation requires new skills and modified governance,” he reports. Mahoney says there are three courses of action available to the CIO, but none of them, he says, are painless.

The options are:

 - Recruit a social media expert
 - Work with existing groups as they spring up in your own organisation
 - Develop your own programme

Social commerce works because it’s a less regulated, more friendly way of doing commerce, says Wendy Tan-White, CEO of Moonfruit, which offers social commerce tools to enterprises.

Facebook, and lately Pinterest, have given corporations ways to channel information, entice impulse buys and, latterly, manage sentiment towards products, brands and organisations.

It’s a good way of improving customer relations as it allows companies to lead the cheering when customers are saying nice things about your brand.

Alternatively, analytical tools can tell you when you’re trending worse than a banking executive and give you the chance to neutralise that bad sentiment somehow. There are various means to do this.

When global manufacturer GE Appliances discovered that its dishwashers were a fire hazard, it defused anger from consumers by publishing an apologetic blog.

Contrast that with the approach metals trading giant Trafigura took to social media coverage of it dumping toxic waste; it applied for super injunctions on the media and from a PR point of view, there is only one winner.

“GE got it right, at a fraction of the cost, and it handled the situation far better,” says Tan-White.

Creative commerce
Social commerce might unleash the creativity of the workforce, but as we’ve seen with bankers and junk bond dealers, that creativity, allied with light-touch regulation, isn’t always used for good.

So perhaps another role is emerging for the CIO as the regulator of social commerce.

Lyle Fong created corporate social commerce giant Lithium almost accidentally. It was originally created as, but it proved so successful at talking to its eponymous audience that its expertise was bought and incorporated by Dell to do the same with its customers.

Now it creates brand advocacy for enterprises like HP and Barnes & Noble.

The unrestricted nature of social media means that consumers will inevitably get their information about companies from each other, says Fong.

Social commerce systems like Lithium’s can help the brand to keep those conversations closer to home. They do this by creating their own social media forum.

“If users are going to find information from each other anyway, why not bring it in-house?” asks Fong. “The challenge was to create controls so that Facebook comment doesn’t go outside.”

A CIO’s job is, to an extent, about exerting control over the information, argues Fong, and Lithium’s expertise in shaping opinion gives pointers to how this can be achieved.

Cunning use of social media monitoring tools, coupled with user-generated content, means that you can get users to do much of the work for you, if they are sufficiently rewarded.

O2 spin-off Giffgaff, for example, entices subscribers to work as unpaid customer support agents by answering each other’s technical queries. The incentive is provided by the free minutes given away to its most helpful users.

CIOs can use social commerce to reward (or manipulate) those who create positive sentiment. Independent endorsements are the sort of good publicity you can’t buy, but you can exert control in other ways.

Enterprises and brands can pump out all the schmaltzy advertising campaigns and PR initiatives they like, but nothing convinces the public like a reference from their peers.

As French novelist Jean Giraudoux said, “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made”.

Social commerce might give you a way to fake it, and so the work of the CIO is to connect these new and emerging business channels with existing ones.

A lighter touch
The anarchy of social commerce could go against the grain for many IT traditionalists, says Tan-White.

The inherent culture in many IT departments is to use ownership of technology as a proxy for coordination, coherence and security of the information and processes that the IT supports.

In other words, many end users regard the IT department as control freaks.

The pervasiveness, popularity and rapid growth of social media prevent that kind of central control.

Many IT traditionalists regard social tools as a form of Japanese knotweed. It plays havoc with their well-tended information garden and its neatly ordered rows of data.

But you will ignore it at your peril, warns Alys Woodward, research director for European business analytics, enterprise collaboration and social solutions at analyst IDC.

“CIOs need to support the business’s ability to go where its customers are,” says Woodward. “It’s no use sitting waiting for customers in your retail outlet if you haven’t led them to you.”

On the other hand it’s no use sitting waiting for customers on your e-commerce site if your customers are all having a noisy, interactive gathering on Facebook and you are nowhere to be seen, argues Woodward.

“CIOs need to give the business freedom to join customers on social media and take advantage of the ability to interact with them, reward them and add to the overall brand value,” says Woodward.

“However they also need to retain governance, control, and security over e-commerce.”

The trust your customers have in your brand is hard-won, and easily lost. That goes for both enterprises and their CIOs.