How Facebook And Twitter Are Changing Business Models, Shaping Brand Identity [Video]

Now that many corporations have mastered the tricky art of signing up for a Twitter or Facebook account, the next step is leveraging social media tools in a meaningful way that impacts your brand and your bottom line. While some have found varying degrees of success, the vast majority could use a crash course stat.

That deficiency has given rise to conferences like Smash Summit, held on Wednesday at the InterContinental Hotel in San Francisco, where representatives of Twitter, Facebook, Salesforce, Google and others offered social media tactics for businesses (Techcrunch was a media partner). The keynote speaker, Jeremiah Owyang, a Partner of the Altimeter Group, offered four laws of social business: don’t fondle the hammer (don’t focus on the specific tools, think about your broader marketing agenda), live the 80% rule (get your company ready for social media, that’s “80% of success”), customers don’t care what department you’re in, and real time is not fast enough. You can access Owyang’s presentation, along with all the other Smash presentations, here.

Although far from perfect in their social media efforts, Virgin America, Comcast and Cisco have all employed parts of Owyang’s rules. They were also (relatively speaking) early movers on blogs, Twitter and Facebook. For example, Comcast’s Senior Director of National Customer Operations, Frank Eliason started using his Twitter account in early 2008 to find customer complaints and interact with disgruntled users.  We spoke with Eliason, Virgin America’s Bowen Payson (Manager of Online & Digital Marketing), and Cisco’s LaSandra Brill (Senior Manager, Global Social Media), after their panel on “The Brand & Enterprise Story: ‘Who’s Changing The Channel.'” Each of course represents a very different sector, but there were several shared threads (see video above):

1. Expansion

These companies are increasing the number of employees dedicated to social media. Cisco’s Brill currently manages a team of 7, she predicts that will rise to 20 to 30 by 2011. Comcast’s Eliason says he’s adding two more to his ten-person staff this year. The rising headcount naturally reflects the companies’ growing online initiatives— Cisco already has 25 blogs and more than 100 Twitter accounts (sometimes there is such a thing as too much of a good thing).

2. Identity

Within corporations, social media is also breaking out of its silo. Companies may be building out specialized teams for social media, but many are also encouraging other employees to use social CRM tools and to become active external agents. For the last few years we’ve been focused on how companies should push out their content and interact with the market, the less apparent power of social media is how it will disrupt the mechanics of business. Eliason says that it has the potential to completely restructure companies, flatten organizations, and democratize the workplace: “We’re going to see a real big shift with employees, whether it be employees talking externally or even talking internally…it’s going to be a new way of having a little bit more power than they did before. And so companies are going to have to figure out a whole new game plan and change their culture…Companies are going to be a smaller place.” Eliason’s boss, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts has also acknowledged the power of Twitter, saying in late 2009 that it has “changed the culture of our company.”

The expansion of social media also has the power to reshape the very guts of a company: its brand identity. According to Brill, Cisco’s social media initiative has softened the company’s image, making it less formal and more human (a nice complement to the company’s “human network” campaign). “We basically have to relearn how we do things, how we communicate, and it’s no longer the polished marketing brochure, the polished website— conversations are happening,” she says. Of course with that power comes risk— the increase in dialogue and brand ambassadors reduces the control a company has over its message. Cisco’s solution was to accept that risk and try to minimize it by education and offering a “social media certification program” to all employees.

3. Stay Focused On Your Business Objectives

This is related to Owyang’s first (oddly phrased) rule, “don’t fondle the hammer.” The executives warned that companies shouldn’t be caught up in specific platforms or rough metrics. Everything should be done in the context of your businesses’ objectives and broader strategy. For example, when it comes to return on investment, Eliason says “The real approach to ROI in this space, is to get all these groups together, PR, marketing, HR IT, and talk through what’s important to you. So we get huge return on investment when we listen to these things and then we act or fix things because we’re listening. The dollars are huge. You could have a 30 minute event that pays for my team for well over a year.”  Meanwhile, Virgin America’s Payson says a flexible model will help you meet your objectives and stay responsive, he balances flexibility with structure by working in three-month cycles. The team plans for developments and initiatives on a three-month time line, but will constantly readjust according to buzz activity and user feedback.

4. Facebook, It’s Complicated

I couldn’t let them go without a parting question on Facebook. Conclusion (not a big surprise): it’s complicated. The companies were all grateful for the platform, but they also highlighted some serious concerns. Brill was upset by the company’s recent launch of Community Pages, which are pseudo-Wiki pages regulated by the Facebook community. She says a page on Cisco was frequently confused with the company’s official profile: “I’m surprised that they would even do something like this without consulting the brands…It looked a lot like our corporate fan page and I think it’s hard for the users to determine what’s official and what Facebook created.”  Virgin’s Payson was more upset by what he described as a lack of transparency, calling on Facebook to follow Twitter’s lead and give companies more access to analytical tools/data.