Following CEO Andrew Needham’s blog post introducing the idea of “socially intelligent research”, we – that’s MD Job Muscroft and social media researcher Jess Owens – wanted to talk more about this concept in its wider context.
What is ‘social business’ and how did this idea develop? What kind of tools and working practices does it involve? And what kind of research might socially intelligent businesses need?
What is social business?
The term ‘social business’ is closely associated with Prof. Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel prize-winning Bangladeshi economist who developed the Grameen microfinance bank. His 2008 book, ‘Creating a World without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism’ popularised the notion. It’s worth noting, however, that the Yunus Foundation defines a social business as “a company created for social benefit rather than private profit”. In the UK, we’d tend to call this a ‘social enterprise’ – in the US, a ‘non-profit’ – and its focus would be explicitly charitable.
The definition of social business that we’re using is slightly bigger (Cello shareholders will be glad to hear private profit is allowed!) but it shares a core belief in building a business whose impact and relationships extend beyond its own four walls.
It’s a tech-informed model that takes from the rise of social media in the 2000s. Social media changed media because it made the relationships between people as important – and as visible – as their top-down relationships with ‘authorities’. It turned the general public from a passive audience into active creators. People’s opinions (and disagreements) about a topic no longer had to remain private, but could be presented on the same channels as the news article itself.
The world did not become ‘flat’ overnight – hierarchies remain, and indeed new ones have been formed. But the shift in social, cultural and political power has been profound.
Social business tools
Social business takes these principles and applies them to business organisation. And it recognises that tools inspired by social media – such as forums, wiki discussion boards, chat and social networks – should become a core part of business communications too.
So companies use tools like Yammer which provides a social network like Facebook and Twitter, allowing employees to build relationships across teams and collaborate (and innovate) more effectively. As consumer social media has made visible, relationships among peers are just as valuable – or more so – than the formal structures of teams and organisational hierarchy.
Or back in 2007, telecoms company BT created ‘BTpedia’, a Wikipedia-style resource about how their business operated. As their intranet manager Richard Dennison explained,
“The idea is that, by simplifying and democratising the publication process, we will unlock a wealth of informal information that is currently excluded from the highly structured and more formal content hosted in our web content management system. Each article also has a discussion tab associated with it which flushes out like-minded people and facilitates connections between them and ultimately communities.”
So social businesses are companies that are thinking hard about their human and intellectual resources, and how best they can really work. And it’s not just about employees – recognising the value that sits outside the business is just as important. This may be relationships with suppliers, or trusted advisors – or even finding opportunities to collaborate rather than compete with other companies in your industry or region.
But the other big pillar of social business is the customer and the ideas and creativity they can share with businesses willing to listen. The customer is absolutely central to the success of your business, after all (if they don’t buy, you don’t have a business…) so the more involved they can be, the better your products can meet their needs.
How social businesses connect with their customers
The mobile network operator GiffGaff uses both ‘social sales’ (customers are financially incentivised to encourage their friends to join the network), and social customer support, provided peer-to-peer in the GiffGaff forums rather than by phone. This saves them a huge amount of money in staffing, allowing them to offer an extremely competitive tariffs and build market share – and a loyal customer base.
Or ‘crowdsourcing’ – even though the term was only created in 2006, its uptake among businesses has been rapid. Unilever have crowdsourced consumer contributions for everything from a Peparami advert to their sustainability initiatives. Ben & Jerry’s also frequently uses crowdsourcing for ice-cream flavours, names and ingredients, gaining both press coverage and customer engagement.
Crowdfunding through Kickstarter is also becoming an increasing channel for new businesses to get off the ground – the Pebble smart watch recently raisedover $10m, proving the model can scale and is likely to be a serious new retail channel to watch.
All these examples should show that social business is not just about social media, as some may think. Instead, social business is a guiding principle of openness to influences outside the company’s four walls – new and fresh ideas may well come from outside. Then, social business also involves a reorganisation of internal processes so that these ideas from new sources can successfully turn into real products and real changes. It’s business as hub and coordinator – a move away from old “command and control” models to something radically more collaborative, flexible and adaptive.
Nonetheless, social media has to be mentioned as a way businesses can listen to their customers and tap into the wisdom of the crowd. Social dashboards can help spread this insight throughout the company, bringing the business closer to its customers and helping these “outside” ideas inform decisions within the business, in real-time. Take a look at this article covering three great examples where listening did – or should have – helped brands manage difficult decisions.
What is the role of research in a social business?
Research has long been what connects the business with the customer – who they are, what they want, how they’ll use your product and the context of their lives that it has to fit into. So research has to be a crucial part of the social business toolkit as companies seek competitive advantage by more fully using the ideas and creativity their customers have.
Since about 2007 we’ve been seeing a substitution of old research methods such as surveys and focus groups for ones with more of a ‘social business’ slant. These methods include online communities, co-creation, social media research, and crowdsourcing innovation projects. The benefits are substantial:
- Using technology for greater efficiency, both for the participant and for clients engaging in the research process day-to-day
- Faster projects, allowing companies to use customer opinion in more decision-making
- More collaborative, allowing many different ideas to feed into the final solution
- More social, helping brands see their customers in the context of their wider social interactions and lives
The research industry has to a considerable extent embraced these methods, but what we have been less clear about is the new model of knowledge creation and business benefit.
Altimeter have produced several important research papers developing social business models as a whole, but it’s not especially market research-focused.
Meanwhile the research industry is in danger of presenting tools like online communities as a mere cost-effectiveness improvements, without advocating strongly enough for how deeply they can advance the relationships brands have with their customers.
So this is what we are seeking to do at FACE with our “Socially Intelligent Research” model. We want to combine social business technologies and models with social intelligence: “the capacity to effectively navigate and negotiate complex social relationships and environments.”
Social business + social intelligence = socially intelligent research
That’s the toolkit our clients need to help them adapt to the hyper-connected digital lives of their customers and the challenging global economy that, five years into a slump, shows few signs of improving. New, more efficient and creative ways to deliver customer services and create new products are essential in this environment.
And it’s the toolkit we ourselves need as a research consultancy too. Social business provides a model for how we can work most efficiently and collaboratively with clients, freelancers and our international offices. And social intelligence is the capacity we need to show in how we understand the context of consumers’ lives, and design research projects to work productively with this.
Tech is certainly an important part of this, from understanding the technology and media use shaping consumers’ lives, to the technologies and data sources we may use as research methods. (Not to mention the ways we communicate with clients, whether by teleconference or video workshop outputs). But it’s not the end goal.
The end goal is a holistic view of the customer, creating insights situated within the social context of customers’ lives at a level earlier research methods couldn’t do.
The end goal is helping brands put the customer and their needs at the heart of their business, building better customer experiences and stronger, more profitable relationships. Ultimately businesses fail when they don’t meet customers’ needs and solve people’s problems. The role of socially intelligent research is to help companies keep these needs central to everything they do.
Stay tuned for more updates on how we’re doing this and the results we’re able to achieve…