Why Executives Can't Afford to Ignore Social Media

I recently spoke to a room of local Saint Louis area executives and business owners at a luncheon for the United Way of Saint Louis' de Tocqueville Society members. Membership in the Tocqueville Society is granted to individuals who contribute at least $10,000.00 annually to a member United Way. 

The topic was "Social Media for Executives," and based on my research, I decided to use an analogy to help these business leaders understand why now is the time - they cannot afford to ignore social media. I also added some figures showing that social media engagement in business can help drive results to the bottom line, and some tips for getting started. Below is an outline I produced for my presentation.

"The world has changed, and consumers, employees, and stakeholders now expect to engage with companies and their brands through social media," says Matteo Tonello, managing director of corporate leadership at The Conference Board. 

My goal today is to help you understand:

  1. Why your organization should be putting effort into social media, 
  2. Or...Why you as a person, as a professional, might want to take a step further into social media, beyond what you do today. 

Let’s start by taking a new look at something you’ve always done.

You are walking into a professional event. It's a Thursday evening, and you are by yourself as you get out of your car and check in at the registration table.

It could be a large charity ball, a banquet, an awards ceremony, or a meeting of the minds - a local networking group you enjoy.

Your mindset is focused on mingling -- for the next hour or two, you know you are about to intentionally allow the line between personal and professional to blur so that you can establish a rapport with the folks you're about to meet or re-acquaint yourself with.

You enter the room, and you notice a lot of small groups of 2 and 3 and 4 people each. There is a lot of lively conversation, some laughs burst out here and there, and a lot of hand-shaking.

You recognize a few faces, and you begin to look around the room to see who else you may know. You notice one or two folks you immediately want to avoid, for one very good reason or another...

And you certainly notice a few folks who are always fun to talk to: 
  • The guy who always has a new and interesting story to tell you 
  • The guy with the really funny stories you just can't get enough of
  • The woman who is always coming up with new and creative ideas, just a vibrant personality, she inspires you and always tells you things about your own industry that you didn't even know. She's on the cutting edge of things.
  • The co-worker who feels familiar, but you just can't get enough time with him in the office and you need to see how his team is doing on the latest project.
  • That woman who just took the CEO job at a local competitor, and you've been dying to introduce yourself - you see a few more powerful business leaders who are always making the news, and the ones you truly appreciate spending time talking to. 

This is just like the user base of any social media site.

Just like you have to walk into that room and make some decisions about where to cut your path.... you've got to cut through the noise and make the connections that count.

You'll be polite to everyone, but you also have to make the best use of your time at this event, because time is a precious commodity - especially for you.

Over the course of the next hour, you will move around the room, jumping in and out of conversations, sizing up the connections you make with each individual, making mental notes of names, job titles, and companies - and most importantly, occasionally making a special new connection that holds some future potential - new business, new relationships to solve complex problems, new firms you may want to hire to help you with particular projects, you name it....

This is just like engagement on social media sites.

Executives know that going to a cocktail party once a year won't be productive.

If walking into that crowded, noisy room of strangers and navigating the turbulent waters of a crowd of busy professionals felt like too much effort, you likely wouldn't just say "forget about it. I don't get it. I give up."

Building relationships takes time. People need to see your face, hear your voice, more than once to know you're serious, to recognize you as an expert, as a mover and shaker.

They need time to open up and get to know you. And fostering connections in order to move a relationship toward the closing of a deal or the comfort level of working together on something may be better the second or third or 15th time around.

If executives successfully work the room at cocktail parties and networking events, everybody remembers them. If you successfully represent your professional persona online, connect with like-minded individuals and stay connected with them, you are doing the same thing online.

I don't think anyone here would disagree that once you are a well-connected professional within your social circles, and you're someone everyone enjoys engaging with in person, others are more open to doing business and more confident in making referrals.

You can use social media to demonstrate thought leadership. Demonstrating your expertise, and fostering connections online (just like in the real world) generates interest, and fosters trust in the relationship. Ultimately, this means that social media:
  • generates leads and referrals, 
  • it helps to increase and shape brand awareness. 
Driving these new, incremental relationships, can lead to new revenue opportunities

Social media is a cocktail party. It's where you go -- voluntarily -- to 
  • meet new people, 
  • to converse, 
  • to learn new things, 
  • to build relationships, 
  • and to network with one goal in mind: mutual business benefit. 

And by the way, if you're like me, you'll say "Wow, this is fun."

It presents itself as the new conversation starter for connecting with utter strangers who might one day become your customers, your business partners, your employees, or your friends.

Challenges Executives Face with Social Media:

  1. RISK: Demands for quick, unscripted updates that can quickly go viral—poses risks for top managers and the companies they represent 
  2. TIME: they are too busy running a company 
  3. FEAR: fearful of sharing too much versus not sharing enough – not knowing what to say 
  4. RESULTS: the business case for using the site can seem unclear, with no direct correlation between Twitter followers and sales. 

Why you should do it anyway:

  1. Add a personal touch to your leadership style 
  2. Leaders can get help generating content from their teams
  3. It can be a personal toolbox for improving your practice of leadership.
    Source: Forbes, Better Leadership Through Social Media
  4. Companies that embrace digital technology are more profitable, generate more revenue and achieve higher market valuations than their competitors.

Here's how you can get started:

  1. Get Organized: Follow experts and news sources, organize them into lists, and use search to read about current events 
  2. Give it Time: Log on frequently for immediate and highly curated industry news & perspectives, and to learn how other experts engage 
  3. Know Your Own Employees: Seek out your socially savvy employees; Give them expert training, and encourage positive social content sharing 
  4. Free Market Research: Monitor brand mentions, competitors, and key industry keywords and trends to see how individuals across social channels reacts to each 
  5. Protect Yourself and Your Brand: Develop and share a social media policy internally that keeps social activity legal, compliant with regulations, and respectful/professional