A poll of Canadian business leaders reveals decidedly mixed feelings about social media usage with four in 10 executives (39 per cent) saying social media is a tool they need to use, but not a tool they actually want to use.
One can't help but to wonder if these same execs that participated in the Queen's University School of Business study on social media are also responsible for making major, everyday business decisions.
Another 35 per cent say they use it heavily because it's a good opportunity for the business, with the remaining 24 per cent saying it doesn't add any value at all. Despite these divisions, a strong majority of executives (72 per cent) are planning to invest the same or more on social media versus last year.
Interestingly, these cautious Canadian results in the Queen's U study appear to mirror similar sentiments stateside where a recent Allstate Corp. and National Journal poll finds Americans believe participation in social media makes them more informed and influential as both consumers and citizens, even if they doubt the trustworthiness of the information they find there.
"Too many organizations use social media to amass shallow acquaintances, when the goal should be to develop fewer, more meaningful friendships," says Neil Bearse, associate director of marketing at Queen's School of Business in Kingston, Ont.
"It's easy to see from the outside looking in the companies that are treating social media as an opportunity to be creative and do things differently -- and have fun bringing their customers and stakeholders into one giant community -- versus the people who think they're operating off of a check list."
Of those respondents that say social media has no business value at all, Bearse calls that perspective 'shortsighted'.
"That's like saying a telephone offers no value to our company at all. This is a new communication platform whether you use it for recruiting or telling a story about your company," he says. "To look at these technologies that offer unlimited potential in terms of global communications — however you want to use it — to say you have no use for that, those people are missing out on a lot of benefits."
Peter Aceto, president of ING DIRECT Canada in Toronto, says he finds these results interesting but he's not terribly surprised by them.
"What I find interesting here is senior leadership understands that social media is playing a role in the success of business and that it's unquestionable to them that it'll play an important role," he says. "Engaging in those platforms personally or as an organization has challenges that many haven't quite come to grips with yet."
There is a significant disconnect between decision-makers and social media's worth, opines Kemp Edmonds, head of professional services at HootSuite Media Inc. in Vancouver, and a social media educator at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.
"This is the same philosophy of late adopters of the telephone in business. The difference here is that with this communications revolution executives aren't comfortable with the medium. Social media is more nuanced and uncontrollable," he says.
"For some businesses, social media isn't the best channel for them to dedicate their resources to because it's not a medium their customers use. Some organizations with bad public personas have a lot of fear related to entering the social media space. Others are sticking their heads in the sand to their detriment and time will show who those are."
Employees and social media
The Queen's U survey also reveals that many executives worry about how the use of social media by their employees might affect the company's reputation. For example, the vast majority of executives (91 per cent) agree that employees should be mindful that even when using social media on their own time they are still representing the company and two in 10 bosses (22 per cent) feel social media use by employees outside business hours should be monitored.
Edmonds acknowledges there is a general concern among execs about employees whose profiles represent or are tied to their corporate identity or brand.
"This perspective comes from a place of fear and a need to control everything possible. This attitude won't aid organizations in the social media space as the message is not controllable," he says. "But if organizations aren't even present in the social space, they won't have the opportunity to be part of or to lead the conversation.
"Also, paying someone to monitor personal social profiles used by employees outside 9-5 is a slippery slope in terms of costs and company morale."
ING DIRECT Canada has more than 1,000 employees; most are under the age of 40. How those employees engage with social media is an ongoing issue the bank grapples with, Aceto admits.
"As an organization we engage in social media a lot … however one of our projects for 2012 is to really take a leap forward in terms of being a social organization. We probably have a higher proportion of employees that use social tools in their personal lives," he says.
"Today, we don't have 1,000 people representing ING DIRECT formally in social media channels. They may do it informally and they're certainly welcome to do that and we're very open to that. We're transitioning our business to be a lot more social."
Aceto adds business leaders must understand that social media is the catalyst for a new, more open and community-focused way of doing business.
"It's not just about Twitter and Facebook. It's really about how we run our businesses and I do think we're getting closer everyday to consumers deciding who they want to do business with based on the values of that business," he says. "Social is a great way to show what your organization's values are."
Edmonds says social media extends beyond marketing. It should be embraced across an organization to include the IT department, human resources, public relations and customer service.
"Executives need not be ostracized for not believing in the power of social media to create an immediate return for their organizations. What they must know is that the longer they wait, the further they will be behind their competition and the longer it will take for them to realize the real return of building community for their stakeholders," he remarks. "The question of social media is the same question that organizations had around websites in the 1990s. Ask yourself, 'how are organizations that don't have websites viewed today?'"
Queen's U's Bearse says social tools will continue to evolve to become a communications platform versus today's predominant attitude that it's an extension of marketing.
"Social media, rather than being something that just a couple of people inside the organization are responsible for, will become something that spreads throughout an organization," he says. "Seeing this as a communications platform that affects the entire organization … that should be a topic everyone (in the company) should be well-versed in. To marginalize it as 'just marketing' is doing a disservice to the potential of these platforms."
The Queen's U survey also finds:
*Close to nine out of 10 business leaders (88 per cent) say that participation in social media after hours can potentially have an "extremely positive or negative" impact on the company's brand.
*One third (34 per cent) disagree with the notion that what their employees do on their own time is their own business.
*Over two thirds of executives (68 per cent) report that their organization has policies on the use of social media at work, while two in 10 (18 per cent) forbid social media usage at work.