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Become the Social CEO

by Peter Friedman

Many brands today are engaging in transformative conversations with customers through social media. These conversations and the relationships that follow allow these brands to fundamentally change the way they do business, ensuring that as customer needs change they’re positioned to capture those changes, adapt, and thrive.

Strong executive leadership and support is essential to the success of any social media program, especially when a company is newly entering that space. And yet when CEOs ask social media experts how to lead their companies into the social era, what they’re told more often than not is, “Start a blog.” That’s not terrible advice – if they’re ready to make the commitment to do the work. But there are much more important leadership initiatives that CEOs need to take to truly enable their companies to leverage the power of social media to hear, drive, and leverage the customer’s voice at immense scale.

What follows are six suggestions based on the actions I see the most successful CEOs taking to set their company on a social course.

  1. Communicate a social vision. It’s the CEO’s job to declare that social media is a core initiative. It is no longer simply a channel for marketing, but a fundamental way for all employees of the company to get closer to customers. Every member of the company benefits when social is used successfully to better understand customers, learn from them, and build stronger relationships. To this end, take time in company meetings and newsletters to communicate the goals and activities of the social program. One of our CMO clients, for example, emphasizes the importance of social by including it as one of four pillars of marketing in company-wide presentations and in conversations with vendors.
  2. Make a practical commitment. To launch, a social program requires at least one dedicated resource; without the full-time focus and accountability of at least one person, a social program can’t achieve the level of depth needed to create real customer conversions, and out of them, closer relationships. Make a CMO or an executive staff member accountable to lead social on behalf of the company and grow the social strength of their team over time. As soon as possible, expand that group and then add social resources to other departments that can work with the central team.
  3. Set high-impact goals and measure them. Once the social team is established, work with them to establish strong ROI measures that keep the program focused on business objectives. But don’t get overly focused on short-term results. If you demand that social generate, for example, short-term revenue, you’ll shift the team’s focus from transforming the customer’s experience to driving product. While everyone appreciates a quarterly revenue bump, those gains are incremental compared to the long-term potential of increased loyalty, enthusiastic word-of-mouth marketing, and deeper customer involvement in shaping the future of the brand and its products.
  4. Shine a light on social wins. In the early days of a social program, gains are often incremental; it takes many months of development and measurement to demonstrate deeper impact. Take the opportunity to shine a light on every small win, so that everyone knows that the work is important. Most likely your company doesn’t yet have a framework to reward social wins. It’s up to you to make sure that one is developed, and to celebrate the work of social at every opportunity in the meantime.
  5. Set the example. Here’s where blogging comes in, but even the CEOs who are doing it usually fail to maximize the activity’s potential. Many CEOs treat a blog like giving a speech. People may comment, but the CEO rarely comments back. Setting the best example requires you to interact. Develop conversations via that comment thread. Or skip the blog and host a Twitter Q&A, in which you show up for an hour and take questions from customers. Experiment with a Facebook page. Whatever tool you use, find ways to interact, not just broadcast.
  6. Listen and take action. Show that you take real-time customer feedback seriously. Have the social team assemble the week’s top 10 social media touch-points (these might be wins, issues, or trends) to review at your weekly executive staff meeting. Then make sure everyone in the company knows you’re doing it. Setting this example is a strong way of communicating to all that your company is customer-centric. This is a best practice my team developed when we were at Apple and has since used with clients such as eBay. Every so often, pick a customer suggestion and act on it. One of the more famous examples of a company making a customer-driven change can be seen in the shelving available in all Starbucks bathrooms. It was added only after customers suggested it when the company turned to social media to crowd source improvement ideas. Without shelves, customers had to abandon their coffee to go to the bathroom, and with that they shortly left the store. Adding the shelves kept the coffee cup in play, and the customers in the store.

Acting on customer feedback—in concert with conscious, consistent support for social media as outlined above—makes a clear statement to your entire organization that getting closer to the customer matters. Under your leadership, social media insight will lead to real changes, and those who help with the effort will be rewarded both individually and by being part of a competitive, healthy company.


Peter Friedman is the CEO and Chairman of LiveWorld, and the author of the forthcoming book The CMO’s Social Media Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide For Leading Marketing Teams in the Social Media World, from which this article was excerpted.@PeterFriedman

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