Once seen as a fad, corporate use of ‘social media' has now become the norm. Social media is best seen as an approach to connecting and informing people, enabling collaboration and knowledge sharing, not as a set of tools. The concept applies internally between employees, and externally with customers, consumers, suppliers, job candidates, and other stakeholders. Research from the CIO Executive Board - a program of the Corporate Executive Board - shows that more than 70 per cent of companies are already using social media and that most are planning to increase their spending in the coming years. While social media is an inherently cross-functional effort, IT leaders are often deeply involved in planning and governing social media and in managing risk.

The Social Media Challenge

The research also shows that only 12 per cent of companies rate their social media initiatives as effective, signaling how hard it is to make social media work. Many organisations struggle to get started and only 25 per cent have a strategy, processes, and metrics in place to help them succeed in the long term. In the absence of strategy, process or governance, most organisations are taking a "What would happen if..." approach to social media. For example, "What would happen if I post my TV adverts to YouTube?" or "What would happen if I create a support wiki?"

This method falls decidedly short. It stunts learning, leads to uncontrolled social media sprawl, and means no one is able to pinpoint why something worked (or failed) or how it impacted business objectives. As a result, time and effort are wasted on further pursuing failed ideas, while successful ideas are not expanded and exploited fast enough.

Graphic: Effectiveness of Social Media Initiatives (click to enlarge)

Accelerate social media value capture

From "What If" to Test and Learn

Social media leaders take a different approach. Rather than jump into the most popular social media platforms, organisations should use hypothesis-driven experimentation to choose the tools that fit. Here are five principles for successful social media experimentation to help you quickly drive scale and business impact from experiments that work:

1. Adopt a Test-and Learn Approach.
Pick a business objective, and then hypothesize how social media might help you meet this objective. For example, "social media tactic X can drive objective Y". Be sure to clearly identify the outcomes you are looking for so you can then measure them later. Hypothesis-led experimentation helps maximise business alignment and impact as it enables leaders to learn as much as they can as fast as they can. IT can contribute both to hypothesis generation itself, and in helping to draw out insights from social media data and accelerate learning.

2. Orient Toward Meaningful Business Objectives.
Maximise the effectiveness of social media initiatives by aligning experiments with meaningful business objectives. Tie social media experiments to activities such as deepening relationships, acquiring new customers, or recruiting employees to drive business value. Educate business partners about social media tools and capabilities; understand end user needs and behaviours.

3. Organise according to Intent and Maturity.
As organisations progress through social media maturity, their managerial needs and opportunities change. Organise social media efforts according to intent and maturity level. Match your management model to your maturity level, moving from loose to tight central control, and then back again as your organisation gains in social media experience and confidence.

4. Provide Baseline Policies and Education.
A "just say no" approach to social media risk management won't work, there are now too many stakeholders looking at too many opportunities. Instead, put in place baseline policies to protect against social media usage risks while fostering creativity. Educate employees about effective use so that they can understand, relate to, and articulate company policies and practices.

5. Redirect Capital to Growing Sources of Enterprise Content.
Social media already accounts for a fair share of content creation within organisations and this share is growing rapidly. To capture value from this content, shift investment and mindshare away from systems and processes that manage structured data toward lightweight capabilities to capture, filter, and disseminate unstructured information.

The Payoff From Social Media Experimentation

By rolling out social media experimentation initiatives, in other words - by testing how different tools drive business objectives, measuring their success, and evolving governance in line with maturity - organisations can quickly and efficiently drive scale and business impact from social media. This way, IT shops can focus their involvement in social media governance, avoiding efforts which are scattered and piecemeal, and help to ensure that adoption remains flexible while social media are still unchartered territory.

About the Author

For additional information about the CIO Executive Board, please visit www.exbd.com/IT. The Corporate Executive Board (NASDAQ: EXBD) drives faster, more effective decision-making among the world's leading executives and business professionals. As the premier, network-based knowledge resource, it provides them with the authoritative and timely guidance needed to excel in their roles, take decisive action and improve company performance.