Selling the Social

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Selling the Social

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Three years ago I posted a screed entitled "Welcome to the Un-Social" on why enterprise customers weren’t buying into the whole Social Computing movement. My intent was not to dismiss the potential value of social applications but to challenge proponents to come up with viable business reasons why companies should invest in these new technologies, backed by quantifiable metrics to prove their value. Sadly, over the intervening years, not only have social proponents failed to step up to the plate, but their already tenuous arguments have become so ludicrous that they are beginning to sound a bit unhinged. It would all be quite entertaining if it weren’t for the billions of dollars being thrown around trying to make customers swallow a bitter pill they don’t want and don’t understand.

Over the last few months I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. Instead of trying to build an actual value proposition for social applications, proponents instead have started attacking the very idea of a value proposition. Sarcastic statements like "What is the ROI of your mother?" or "What is the inherent value of your telephone system?" do not strengthen your argument – they only make you look like an outrider on the lunatic fringe. Folks, let me break this to you in the most direct way I know how: businesses exist to produce a profit for stakeholders. They are not feel-good factories for interpersonal experimentation. Every important decision is based, in one form or another, on its overall impact to the bottom line. Sure, some decisions get made based on emotion (probably way more than should be), but when you’re trying to sell a solution you don’t tell the customer that their evaluation criteria is wrong. While you may very well be right you’ll never win the deal with that approach.

If you want to convince people to see the world your way then you have to at least start by trying to understand where they are coming from. Telling them that business cases don’t apply to social solutions is laughable; if you can’t make it tangible then don’t even bother to make your pitch. You may as well just say "all your competitors are doing it" and try to shame them into buying for all the good that will do you. It amazes me, after all this time, that people are still trying to pretend that the bulk of social applications aren’t a complete waste of time. They are and more people realize it today than they did three years ago. The success of Twitter and Facebook hasn’t helped; in fact, quite the opposite has occurred. The minute you say "social" to any senior executive in just about any major corporation you’re already starting off behind the eight ball – you’d better move fast on your feet because they’ve already stopped listening to 90% of what you’re saying.

Here’s an idea – how about we stop trying to pretend we know something they don’t and start trying to help them solve problems? Businesses of all types have been churning out profits long before we came along with our newfangled blogs, tweets and friending frenzies. They know how to create shareholder value – do you? And here’s another thing to put on your list of failed approaches – the suits don’t give a rat’s rear end about how millennials would like to see the workplace transformed. If you want a job you’re going to do it their way, end of discussion. Remember that whole dotcom boom thing? A whole lot of people tried to come up with all sorts of touchy-feely approaches to business and they failed, precisely because they were trying to do just about everything except make a profit.

Time to stop preaching and start listening. You can start by focusing on areas where social elements have demonstrable value. Take the tagging and rating features in SharePoint 2010. Every organization knows they have a problem finding things that are already there. One of the underlying reasons for this is the disconnect between classification systems and everyday language. Show the customer how unstructured classification (i.e. "folksonomy") can improve findability – it’s an easy demo and it resonates. Make a conservative assumption regarding productivity gains, say 2% – 3%, and quantify that impact on the bottom line. Not a bad way to start with the CFO in the room.

Next, stop talking about MySites, perhaps the worst-named feature ever, and start talking about knowledge management. Demonstrate how easy it can be to find a subject matter expert within an organization based on activity feeds, blogs and connections. Ask the customer to provide a list of team members on five recent projects and challenge them to identify, with a high degree of confidence, the SME’s in each functional area. Then hit the whiteboard and start counting up the hours that could have been saved, and budget reclaimed, if they knew for sure that the most qualified people were leading each team. You can bet you’ll have their attention on that one.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, ask to see their training budget for the last fiscal year. If you can manage to keep from breaking down into complete hysterics, inquire as to how they intend to keep their workforce up to speed with such a minute portion of revenues dedicated to increasing institutional knowledge. This is your opportunity to start talking about informal learning, the kind that happens when people start virtual conversations on discussion threads, blogs and wikis. Inform them that only 3% of formalized training has any impact at all on the organization and that a large part of the failure is due to lack of application within the workplace. By contrast, informal learning costs less, is put in to practice immediately, has a greater long-term impact and is already happening in every workplace. This type of learning is social by nature – and the biggest dividends come from having access to subject matter experts when you need them (reinforcing my previous point). In other words, if a company is going to spend money on training, why not put it into systems that support and encourage informal learning?

The bottom line is, you’d better start caring about the bottom line or this social stuff is never going to get off first base. Three years on from my first post and we should have seen massive adoption by now; we haven’t, and there’s a reason for that – because the people who want it to happen and the people who pay for it aren’t anywhere close to being on the same page. Face it, none of the people you’re trying to sell to follow you on Twitter or "like" you on Facebook. The only people listening to you are fellow inmates in the asylum. You won’t get your prospect’s attention until you start talking in their language.

It’s time to roll up your sleeves, get your calculators out, and start showing companies how they can solve specific business problems in quantitative ways. We’ve got the tools – they’re all there right out of the box. And if they’re not quite enough then there are plenty of third parties who make it even better. The problem isn’t the platform it’s the pitch. The hard truth is that it’s going to take a whole lot of spreadsheets to win this battle – it can’t be done in 140 characters or less.