Does it really matter who owns social?

customerservicepriorityLast week, I asked “Who ‘owns’ social?” as part of my preparation for moderating a panel discussion with that title at The Social Customer 2012 conference that took place in London yesterday.

The post attracted a handful of great comments from Adam Tinworth, Shel Holtz, David B. Thomas and David Terrar, each of whose views added to the richness of the discussion yesterday.

And rich it was. Each member of the panel – Katy Howell (Managing Director, Immediate Future); Nick Sharples (Corporate Communications Consultant), Martin Hill-Wilson (Brainfood Consulting), and Aaron Stewart (Product Marketing Manager, KANA Software) – had clear opinions to share; here’s a sampler from the answers each panellist told me before the event and which I shared with the conference audience yesterday:

“In the first instance, every function with a touch point to the consumer, customer and employee, needs to be ‘socially aware’. [...] Ultimately companies must listen to the voice of the consumer and behave as a single and coherent entity. It is what the consumer demands.” – Katy.

“It depends! Often ‘ownership’ is less about a rational analysis of the most appropriate department to lead social, and more about internal structures, culture, powerbases, declared strategies and agendas, and many hidden agendas.” – Nick.

“The CEO and her peers own social.” – Martin.

“It depends. [...] Those that have a stake in social should take ownership, because the uses will vary widely from department to department.” – Aaron.

They all expanded on these concise opinions, which was instrumental to the discussion that ensued. And that discussion involved members of the audience, too, who offered some distinct views they held on who “owns” social.

You can read more of the detail of the overall discussion in the text of Adam Tinworth’s live blogging, and Barry Furby’s wrap-up of the event overall.  You can also see the chronological Twitter reactions during the day at the hashtag #SCRM12 (unfortunately hijacked somewhat by Twitter spam – a growing problem for event organizers) which will also have links to other blog posts, etc, that will have been posted since yesterday.

What became apparent to me as the debate progressed, from what everyone was saying either in specifics or in generalities, is that surely the only feasible answer is – very clearly – “It depends”? Even the views of those who believe social is owned by a function or an individual, such views were qualified by “it depends on…”, whether explicitly said or implied by what was being said.

An obvious further question would be “On what, precisely, does “it depends” depend?” The obvious response may be to suggest that ownership of any organizational function or act depends on what your objective is, how you plan to go about achieving it, who will do it, when, how, etc – among many other things – assuming we are clear on what we mean by the word ‘owns.’

So on the face of it, I think the question “Who ‘owns’ social?” isn’t as easy to address as it may seem. It’s one that an organization like Tesco is surely grappling with, if Emily Leary‘s astonishing experience last week is anything to go by. I used Emily’s post Why I’ll never shop with Tesco again in the panel discussion as an example of how when a customer relationship goes wrong, it can go seriously wrong and have wide impact when the customer is all over the social web talking about the bad experience. And she’s a mummy blogger (just ask McNeil Healthcare in the US how that feels).

In the meantime let’s recognize that the question of who owns social won’t be answered any time soon; isn’t a greater imperative to decide on how to start embracing social within an organization?

That’s what some in the audience thought. We heard a pretty good example of what happened in one London-based organization where some employees were less concerned about who owned something than actually getting on and getting results in what they wanted to achieve in their customer relationship activities.  This story was offered by a member of that organization who was in the audience.

In essence, she described how she proposed using social media to engage with customers on a small scale, ie,  she was in one part of the organization and with a small department. So it was a small-scale idea and operation, one that didn’t suggest or propose a course of action that some would see as having wide impact in the whole organization, ie, triggering the FUD reaction.

Over a six-month period, we heard that this part of the organization started using social media to engage online with customers to the extent that it’s now becoming an integral part of their overall customer engagement activity, using social tools like Twitter and Facebook.

The three key aspects of this experience that stand out for me are:

  1. Start small and with a single step, whatever size your organization is (and especially if it’s a big one)
  2. Know your own organization including knowing who the key influencers are you need to build/have good relationships with.
  3. Have courage and belief in yourself, and an open mind.

With those three things in place, you can achieve anything.

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About Neville Hobson

Entrepreneurial business communicator with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Co-host of the weekly business podcast For Immediate Release: The Hobson and Holtz Report. Also an occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Follow me on Twitter and Google+.