IT’s role in social media marketing

For consumer-facing businesses, there is really no need to argue the case for social media marketing.

According to the latest figures from Ofcom, the telecommunications watchdog, half of the UK population lives in a household where social networks are used. That many eyeballs are an economic opportunity ready to be exploited, and no company can ignore the possibilities.

It has not traditionally been something the IT department has had to worry about, however. Marketing departments have typically outsourced operational responsibility for social media to specialist agencies using their own specialist tools.

But while no-one is arguing that a company’s social media strategy should be led by the IT department, there is a case to be made that the data integration, management and governance skills of IT can add value to the implementation of that strategy.

Furthermore, helping the marketing function to derive maximum value from their social media efforts is an opportunity for the IT department to contribute to business growth, not just cost containment.

Joining up social

The term social media marketing covers a multitude of activities with a variety of objectives.

Most businesses instinctively view social networks as a medium through which they can raise awareness of their brands. There are many ways to do this, including advertising on social networks, branded Facebook pages or Twitter accounts, and ‘content marketing’, creating sponsored content in the hope of driving social media buzz.

Social media also allows companies to listen to the market. Social media analytics services allow marketers to assess the sentiment of users towards their brands, products and competitors.

An emerging component of social media marketing is ‘social commerce’, where social networks, particularly Facebook, are used as a shopfront where customers can browse and buy goods.

Companies can also directly interact with customers through social networks, to help them with queries and complaints, although this might more appropriately be classified as customer support than marketing.

Whatever the marketing department’s objective in using social media, rarely will it look to the IT department to help it achieve it. “Marketers feel that involving IT is going to hold up the prospect of getting anything into place because historically it takes longer when you go through IT,” explains Gartner analyst Jennie Sussin. But as time goes on, she says, “IT is becoming more involved in the conversation”.

One reason for this is that the information derived for social media, like any other marketing channel, is an asset of value to the business. That asset is most valuable when it can be combined with other information to provide insight into customer buying habits, and that requires data integration.

So far, the conventional approach to social media marketing has been to outsource it to agencies. “Companies mainly outsource social media marketing lock, stock and barrel,” explains Anthony Mullen, an analyst at Forrester Research. “Worse than that, they will outsource it to one agency in France and one in Hong Kong, for example, so it becomes quite a fragmented affair.

“But as organisations are becoming better able to plumb the data from social media into IT systems such as CRM platforms, so that they can tailor messages for individuals, they’re starting to reign social back in.”

One organisation attempting to do just that is US car manufacturing giant Ford. According to Scott Monty, global head of social media for the company and author of the Social Media Marketing blog, social media is still quite distinct from other marketing channels at Ford, but this is about to change.

“We’re looking at ways we can create a 360-degree view of the customer,” he says. “Whether it’s from email, their social profile or posting on our pages, etc, we’re trying to bring all that together to look at customers and customer behaviour.”

Information gleaned from social could benefit departments across the organisation, Monty adds. “There’s data out there for us to understand and to analyse that could help us not only in terms of CRM, but other business processes too. Perhaps we can analyse the data and feed it into our engineering team or design team, or maybe even financial arm.

“There’s a whole realm of possibilities there, and that’s part of the code we need to crack in the next few years,” he says.

Potential contributions

One problem enterprise IT departments face if they are to support social media marketing initiatives is the scale and volume of social media data.

Social media analysis is a textbook ‘big data’ use case, as the streaming nature of, for example, Twitter updates renders them unsuited to traditional relational databases. Furthermore, the distribution of social media messages relevant to a given organisation will be highly unevenly distributed.

“This is something that CIOs should be very mindful of,” says Forrester’s Mullen. “IT departments are familiar with flexing systems to meet demands for scale – whether that’s web impressions or the number of calls to customer service – but when you add social media into the mix, that flexing can be an order of magnitude greater.

“Big data in the cloud allows for that sort of flexing. So, if you have streams of data coming in from social media, you should at least be thinking of examining the cloud.”

Another important consideration, where IT’s experience can be brought to bear, is privacy and data protection. This is particularly relevant if an organisation embeds social media functionality into its website, and uses it to collect information about visitors’ social media activities.

Since the introduction of the EU e-Privacy directive earlier this year, explains Forrester’s Mullen, “you have to disclose to consumers that you’re collecting data via social widgets or cookies, and explain why.

“And then of course, depending on how nice you are, or whether you’re in a regulated industry or not, you could give them the option to stop that data being collected.”

According to Gartner’s Sussin, as social media marketing application vendors vie for enterprise adoption, many are introducing governance modules to help users meet their compliance obligations: “We see a lot of vendors who are bringing products to space offering a compliance module for [social media marketing], that analyses the data for signs of any potential complaints, concerns, privacy breaches, etc.”

A third contribution IT can make to social media marketing is to encourage a degree of standardisation across the organisation in terms of data, tools and technology. The current, fragmented, approach to sourcing products and services threatens an organisation’s ability both to extract value from social media data and to inject the necessary governance and control.

“[IT] can help the marketing department make what it’s doing a standard across the organisation,” Sussin explains.

In all, the analysts advise, IT should adopt an assistive role in social media marketing engagements. “One thing that we encourage with IT is not to expect a seat at the table when the initial concept for the social media plan is coming into play, but to reach out to marketing to offer their support,” Sussin says.

“Marketing is the primary buyer here,” she says. “IT’s role is to say, ‘Hey, here’s what we can do so that you can have long-term analysis of your work; here’s what we’re going to do so that Legal doesn’t come back and bite you.’”

For Ford’s Monty, it is no longer acceptable for IT leaders to ignore social media as a phenomenon. “I think it’s important for the CIO to be aware and engaged in this space,” he says. “Whether they personally have an account and get out there and take action is an individual decision, but they at least need to have a strong team that understands this, and they need to have a strategic worldview of it all.

“That doesn’t mean that IT needs to run social media, but it needs to work hand-in-hand to make sure that the opportunities are met.”

Ed Reeves

Ed Reeves co-founded Moneypenny with his sister Rachel Clacher in 2000. The company handles more than 9 million calls a year for 7,000 UK businesses and employs almost 400 members of staff. Reeves remains...

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