Comms providers ready for social media plunge

Social networking and social business will continue to change the way we work, communicate and live. It represents a fundamental shift in all aspects of the communication service provider industry. So why is the adoption of social business by CSPs so low? They have been playing in the shallows of social business. The good news is that most are planning to take the plunge.

Applying social business across the orgainzation. Source: IBM Institute for Business ValueA recent global study by IBM provides insights into how CSPs are using social business today and sets out the areas of focus and value going forward.  The timing is right. Today, roughly one-third of the world's population is online. And many of these connected users are increasingly using social media tools to shop, spend and share insights. This all has led to an amazing consumer revolution as profound as any seen before. Additionally, every new employee coming into the industry is already a power user of social networking, a capability to be further nurtured and harnessed.  

CSPs have started using social media to track social media conversations, offer support tips, respond to support requests, and announce new products or special events. CSPs in the forefront are using social approaches to engage deeper with their customers, to share knowledge with their suppliers, business partners and, perhaps more importantly, their employees. They also realize the relevance of social tools in driving innovation for competitive differentiation and are reaping the rewards.   

However, the use of social business tools is not without risks. Our survey revealed that only 13% of the CSPs respondents have effective processes in place to deal with these risks such as attacks on their brands, legal issues, data security and privacy and unintended disclosure of company information.  

IBM Institute for Business Value surveyed more than 1,100 businesses around the world, including executives from the telecom industry. Social business is gaining notable traction in their organizations; 49% of the CSPs surveyed increased their investments in social business in 2012, and 58% indicated they were going to increase their expenditures over the next three years.

They want to achieve three main objectives:

  • Create valued customer experiences
  • Drive workforce productivity and effectiveness
  • Accelerate innovation  

Value experiences

CSPs increasingly recognize the value of interacting with customers in social spaces, to understand experiences, trends, the buzz about the company and to act and react as appropriate. A good example is O2's response to negative chatter: O2 UK experienced widespread network problems affecting hundreds of thousands of its customers in July 2012, user anger was boiling over, with many customers expressing their dissatisfaction on Twitter. O2, however, turned the tables by using Twitter to deliver fast, professional customer response, and was able to maintain their brand image by adding humor and personality to their tweets.  

Listening and enagaing. Applying social approaches to engage customersAround two-thirds of the CSP survey respondents have personal experience in applying social business to customer issues. The current focus is on responding to customer questions, i.e., providing self-service and agent-based support via social platforms. Another key focus is on mining conversations, i.e., capturing customer data to determine consumer sentiment, purchasing references and overall market trends. Crowdsourcing insights allow customers to review and rank new products and services. The area with the highest progression - from 35% now to 68% in the next two years - is influencing influencers, i.e., finding the individuals with significant followers and targeting them with appropriate messaging.  

Bharti Airtel understands how important it is to listen and engage with customers. It scans for every tweet containing the word "Airtel," and respond, as appropriate, to customers through this channel. Airtel also uses social network analysis to determine customer issues by tracking mentions of the company on social media (such as Facebook and Orkut) and following up on any problems.   

Another focus area is building communities. Bringing like-minded individuals together to share thoughts, ideas and experiences about a company's products and services can create valued customer experiences. It encourages a two-way dialogue and offers new communication avenues and customer input methods. Giffgaff, a mobile phone service in the UK wholly owned by Telefonica O2, brings community building a step further. Giffgaff differs from conventional mobile phone operators in that the users of the service may also participate in certain aspects of the company's operation, e.g., sales, customer service and marketing. In return for this activity, the user receives remuneration through a system called "Payback".   

Social business has moved beyond basic promotional activities to encompass the entire customer lifecycle, including lead generation, sales and post-sales service. Consequently, as the use of social business expands, it will encompass all touch points and all customer experiences across all channels.   

To date customers have been the primary focus of social business strategies for many CSPs, however, the day-to-day activities of the workforce also are becoming a focus area.   

Around one-third of our survey sample has used social approaches to address workforce efficiencies. AT&T, for instance, has implemented a collection of collaborative tools over the past few years on what it refers to as its social business platform, tSpace, including enabling comments on its news articles, blogs, bookmarks, file sharing, brainstorming, forums and wikis. Today, more than 124,000 employees are using tSpace to engage with each other and increase productivity.   

Lifetime learning has become a necessity - both for employees and their employers. To support this, an increasing number of CSPs - more than half in our survey - are building social practices into their formal and informal learning efforts, to reduce the time it takes to develop needed skills. Canada's Telus, for instance, extends the use of social business tools to integrate classroom programs with training, using social networks, videos and blogs for its employees. Seventy percent of Telus employees actively participate in these formal and informal learning programs.  

Partnering through social business is a critical requirement and an area where there is considerable scope for improvement.  

Accelerating innovation  

Listening and enagaing. Applying social approaches to engage customersSocial tools can accelerate acquisition of new ideas from almost anyone who touches an organization. Forty-four percent of our CSP sample has used social approaches to accelerate innovation. Big data and unstructured data analytics is now a critical competency.  

China Telecom, for instance, created an innovation platform to connect employees, partners and customers. It enabled marketing teams to analyze new intelligence gathered directly from consumers and launch new services using insight from each customer. It also reduced opportunity costs and risk by expanding sources for new product ideas and by improving idea quality, increasing the chance of marketing success. There were 554 new "voices" in the development process during the first six months of the platform launch, with the publication of the first idea a mere ten minutes after launch.  

Organizations are increasingly using social tools to enable more structured innovation, ranging from social suggestion boxes, to Jams, to Hack Days. In the case of Jams, sometimes tens of thousands of people access a social media tool, usually over the course of several days, to discuss a problem or issue and to develop solutions or new requirements. These events are generally moderated online discussions, with polling and voting, to develop insights around specific themes or challenges. AT&T's internal social media platform tStorm aims to give employees an opportunity to brainstorm on new ideas. Hack Days, a newer way of using social tools, are short-term efforts narrowly focused on developing a workable solution or prototype within a defined window of time.   

Our survey and interviews have made one thing clear: those CSPs experiencing the most success in social business approaches know they have to make fundamental changes in the way their employees work across the entire enterprise. To weave social business into the fabric of the organization, three key issues must be addressed on an organizational level:

  • First, CSPs need to consider how to incorporate social metrics into their traditional organization and processes.
  • Second, they need to understand and manage the risks associated with social business.
  • Third, change management remains a critical requirement in embedding successful social business practices in an organization.  

While we occasionally hear the "show me the money" question from CSP executives about the value of widespread adoption of social business across the organization, its partners and customers, we can report the tide has well and truly turned, the proof points are evident and taking the plunge will be a profitable experience.    

Rob van den Dam is the telecom leader for the IBM Institute for Business Value - [email protected]. Nick Gurney is VP of telecom for IBM's Global Business Services - [email protected]