2007 – 2011: Adapting to the new complexities of social business

Five years ago, when businesses – from the enterprise down to small mom & pop retailers – started using social media to enhance their business processes, things were simpler than they are today. You had your blog. You had your Facebook page. Maybe you had your Youtube channel and your Flickr account. If you were really ahead of the curve, you were already using this new thing called Twitter.

Back then, it was already becoming obvious that social media might be a bit of a time-suck. Not only were you supposed to manage your business and take care of customers, now you had to be a multi-platform publisher as well. You had to write stuff. You had to take pictures of stuff. You had to make videos and edit them and put them on the web. If you were really ahead of the curve, you were spending parts of your evenings looking for forums and discussions, watching, listening, taking notes, maybe even participating.

Already, it became clear that managing a social media presence for your business – or rather, managing the digital aspects of your transformation from a traditional business to an increasingly social business – would soon become a full-time job. You can almost trace the early discussions of social media ROI to that point in social business’ early evolution. It wasn’t really the “should I be on social media” question that did it. It was the “should I pay someone to do this instead of what I know will help my business” question, because it quickly became obvious that social business could never be an after-thought or just a part-time thing.

But this isn’t a post about ROI or social business evolution. This is a post about complexity – specifically, social business complexity. Perhaps more to the point, this is a post about managing that complexity. From the very beginning of this shift to social business, one of the biggest problems business owners and department managers have had to deal with (independently of assigning resources to the task) was simply information overload. Over the course of a very short time frame, businesses went from being disconnected from market intelligence and consumer insights to being flooded with both. Where in the past, organizations could expect consulting and market research firms to act as a collection agent, filter and translator of data, they were now confronted with a volume of information they simply were not capable of managing on their own. Social media monitoring seemed like a great idea. It looked great on paper. In reality, it was a very difficult thing to execute on. Too many sources. Too many hours in the day. Too many platforms to track. And even if it was possible to make sense of it all, then what? What did you do with it? It was hard enough to come up with content and respond to comments and tweets. The entire web had to be monitored and managed as well? Operationally, the task seemed gargantuan. Worse yet, it didn’t scale. (No worries. Scale is a topic we will cover soon.)

While some companies dove into the process of figuring out how to do this all on their own, it wasn’t long before a chunk of the market threw up their hands and decided to outsource the process rather than taking care of it themselves. And for a while there, it was rough for everybody. But then, something cool began to happen.

Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention.

2011-2013: the rise of social monitoring ecosystems

After a few years of experimentation with various social media dashboards and monitoring tools, it became clear that managing a social media program was not an either/or equation when it came to hardware and software. The question began to shift from “what’s the best tool for social media management” to “what else should I be using.” It was clear that certain social media tools, when used side by side, could not only increase the overall effectiveness of an entire program, but also amplify the value of each individual tool. If the word popping into your head right now is symbiosis, you’re on the right track.

Symbiosis:

1. Biology A close, prolonged association between two or more different organisms of different species that may, but does not necessarily, benefit each member.
2. A relationship of mutual benefit or dependence.

Let’s geek-out a little and get a little more specific, because symbiotic relationships come in three types:

Commensalism: A symbiotic relationship in which one organism derives benefit while causing little or no harm to the other. (Good.)

Parasitism: A symbiotic relationship in which one organism (the parasite) benefits and the other (the host) is generally harmed. (Bad.)

Mutualism: A symbiotic relationship in which both organisms benefits from their relationship with the other. (Best.)

Needless to say, you don’t want parasitism. At worst, combining several social media management tools together falls into a commensalist symbiosis scenario – one where some of these tools (and associated) functions will benefit from the utility of other tools, while the utility of these stand-alone tools will not be affected. At best, combining several social media management tools together will create a mutualist symbiosis scenario – on in which every one of these tools will see their utility and value enhanced by the others.

Walk into any company’s digital  “mission control” center today, and what you will find is an illustration of one or the other of these two ecosystems – and sometimes a combination of both.

Simplifying Digital Mission Control centers: too little vs. too much

So now that we are talking about digital mission control centers (a topic we will revisit often in the coming months), let’s look at them from the perspective of trying to minimize the complexity of social media management.

Remember how we got here: the shift from traditional business management to social business management drove us to figure out ways of capturing, corralling, funneling and sorting through swells of disjointed information and noise so we could find the precious gold nuggets we refer to as signal. Signal can come in the form of a new business opportunity, like identifying a lead; it can come in the form of customer retention, like a well-executed customer service response; it can come in the form of business development, like discovering a whole new community of hobbyists who could help you alter an existing product to suit their specific needs; it can also come in the form of reputation management, like identifying a potential PR crisis long before it snow-balls into a news item, and responding to it early and effectively. The faster you can sort through oceans of data and information, the faster you can identify these opportunities. And the faster you can identify these opportunities, the faster you can respond to them – which is to say leverage them.

Complicating the process of sorting through that data and information doesn’t speed it up. Simplifying it does. If your choice of hardware and software (and processes – like workflow) isn’t simplifying your organization’s social media monitoring, management, response and reporting functions, you’re doing it wrong.

Here’s a litmus test: If you take a tour of a digital mission control center, and the guide’s explanations make it all sound more complicated than you expected it to be, that isn’t a good sign.  But if during that tour, you understand how each screen serves a specific purpose, and that purpose is to simplify the company’s overall monitoring, management and response process, then you know they’re on the right track.

In any digital and social media monitoring program, there’s a balance to be struck between not enough and too much. Relying on a single “do it all tool” is just as ineffective as using as many as possible. You don’t just want two or three screens any more than you want thirty. The ideal set-up will vary from company to company, but you are looking at no more than 6-8 screens per person. Anything less, and you aren’t covering enough ground. Anything more, and you are overloading your people with data. Likewise, the amount of information you display on each screen has to strike the right balance between too much and too little. What it means, is that in designing (or re-evaluating) your mission control center, you need to make every screen count. The question at this point shifts from “could this tool help me” to “which of these tools would be the most useful to me here.”

Remember that the idea is to simplify. It is never to complicate.

That’s where data aggregation comes in. Any piece of software that aggregates information from relevant sources and organizes it for you simplifies the entire process. If the tool allows you some measure of customization (in terms of sources, organization and specificity of searches), that’s even better.

Engineering the ideal mission control center: specificity, adaptive aggregation, and mutualism

Not all tools do the same things, by the way. Some tools, for instance, are exceptional at helping you scan across an ocean of search terms and menus, then drill down into very specific, granular activity – like Radian 6 and Hootsuite (you might have spotted them in the graphic up there). Others are also amazing when it comes to helping you get under the hood of specific platforms or channels – like Webtrends and Salesforce (also in the graphic). And then some tools – like Tickr – help you see the entire field at a glance, by organizing relevant data so clearly that it brings it all together for you. All of these types of tools used in concert create an ideal balance of breadth and depth that can allow organizations to at once grasp data trends and macro insights, and dig into them as far as they care to. At the core, that’s what adaptive aggregation is.

Every client we work with tells us the same thing: Tickr makes (insert more complicated monitoring tool here) easier to use. We love to hear it, but we doubt that’s what is actually going on. What they probably mean is that we complement the other tools they are using well. Tickr simply offsets the complexity of other, heavier tools by injecting their social media monitoring ecosystem with clarity and simplicity. As we continue to increase the functionality of Tickr and bring our users some really cool, handy new features over the course of the next few months (details soon), our objective will be to stay true to what drove us to create Tickr to begin with: simplifying the monitoring function. That means not only having the simplest, clearest, at-a-glance screen in the room, but having the most instinctive user interface as well. The biggest challenge for us as we keep adding cooler and smarter functionality to Tickr, is that we have to be careful not to make our product more complicated. That’s a hard thing to do, but so far so good. As we start to unveil our upcoming upgrades, you will have to let us know if we’re on the right track.

Tangent. Sorry. Back to the post:

If you are in the process of building a mission control center (or in the process of evaluating a current one), definitely make a deliberate effort to continuously discover new tools, then test them. Stay up-to-date on existing tools’ new releases and updates too. A monitoring tool that was perfect for you a year ago might not be the best one for you today. Likewise, a monitoring dashboard that wasn’t robust enough for you six months ago might have grown into the perfect solution for you since then. That’s the first layer.

The second layer is this: test these tools side by side. Think of them not as stand-alone solutions but as solutions to be used in conjunction with other platforms. That’s where the real gold is. If you can clearly understand how to combine tools like Radian 6, Webtrends, Spiral 16, Alterian, Tickr, Hootsuite and more (there are tons), then you will find yourself a few steps ahead of the vast majority of businesses out there – including most digital agencies – and you will also be on track to simplify your social monitoring and response functions as well, which is no small feat. Caution though: the rate of adaptation in the area of mission control center design is increasing fast. Ever since PepsiCo/Gatorade (client), Dell, Edelman Digital and others have showcased their centers, the demand for similar MCCs has accelerated. A year ago, there were just a few dozen of them around the world. By this time next year, there will be hundreds. The year after that, thousands – if not tens of thousands. The sooner you dive into this, the better. Early adopters of the MCC model won’t keep their first-mover advantage for very much longer. In 8-12 months, the game won’t be whether or not you have your own MCC; it will be whether or not you designed it properly and are making the best possible use of it.

Here’s to efficiency and results.

Cheers.

By the way, if you haven’t tried Tickr for free yet, click here.

One last thing…

If you are already using multiple tools together (either in a formal mission control setting or a more traditional monitoring and management “dashboard” model), we would love to hear what they are and what you like about how they complement each other. Have you found any ideal pairings yet? Have you found any annoying gaps in functionality? Do you have a wish list of functions or specs you would like to give voice to? The comment section is all yours.