Who Should Own Social Media?

An interesting discussion started up yesterday during social media chat led by @marc_meyer and @adamcohen.  You can catch the transcript here. While there was a ton of good discussion, one of the larger questions that came up was this:

Who should own social media inside the organization?

I hear this issue raised constantly.  To me, asking this question is a bit like asking "Who should own the Internet inside the company?"   This can only lead to more questions, like "What are we specifically are we talking about owning?"
  • The Infrastructure?
  • Supporting tools and applications?
  • Which Website?
  • Usability and IA?
  • The Audience?
  • Content? If so, which content?
  • Customer Communication?
  • Customer Service?
  • Marketing?
  • Policies / Governance?
In short, it 'aint that simple.

Approaches to website ownership vary from one company to another.  For one thing, in most companies, there are a number of web properties. There are also a host of supporting technologies, databases and shared services used to publish content or facilitate transactions on these sites.  So, rather than being centralized, web ownership is almost universally shared.  Web management responsiblity is also dispersed across a number of "executive owners"  and aligned, from a task perspective, across an array of functional and technical stakeholders.

The same principles hold true for Social Media.

Especially in larger organizations, it's unrealistic to assume all digital media channels will be centrally "owned" by a single entity or department. There are too many moving parts.  This is especially true when one considers the nature of social media,  the dynamics of applications and tools, the broad scope of their application and their capacity for exponential expansion.  So, there's no canned ownership answer to the ownership question; no "one size fits all approach" to managing social media that will work for every company.

While many of us will offer a compelling argument for centralized oversight, accountability and governance, reality is usually quite different.  In fact, the companies that really "get" social channels will have many "hubs" of social business activity -- and dispersed involvement and ownership - just like the "traditional internet."

But isn't the CEO ultimately the owner? What about the C-Suite? 

Without question, the CEO is accountable for delivery and performance within digital channels. But what does establishing this really do?   When we talk about the nitty gritty aspects of ownership --  like providing real thought leadership, strategic direction, setting expectations and goals for performance, driving organizational participation and awareness, and coordinating delivery -- the CEOs of most organizations are challenged to deliver!  These areas are typically where most companies need the help.  

So the CEO relies on the C-suite.  The challenge is, the C-suite is too busy reactively managing organic growth in digital media, pertaining to their individual areas of responsibility. This is why there's often poorly aligned leadership, coordination, competency, organizational collaboration, metrics and delivery of targeted results.

While most of us would agree that a strong, '"top-down," strategically driven, leadership approach (and solid strategy) would be ideal, this is far from the reality in most companies today.  Without question, there needs to be executive led strategy and strong ownership in the C-suite... but it's a mistake to create the impression social media owned by a single person.

FWAP!!  (This is where reality slaps ideality in the face)

While there may be a few outstanding organizations that have phenomenal top-down leadership in the area of digital media (especially in the high tech space), it's the exception to the rule.  What's more common is a bottom up approach to managing digital media.  Perhaps this sounds familiar:

...Select individuals within the company realize the potential of new channels and begin develop new digital outposts and properties. They may do this in a manner that is accountable to leadership, but there's typically not a cohesive strategy in place and there are often multiple pockets of activity - each with different lines of accountability.  These early-adopters are typically under resourced, under appreciated, and sometimes under cover in their efforts... until they achieve success. When this happens (by art or incident), they gain a new level of credibility, turning executive heads and garnering executive support that may have been previously lacking. Then, (tadaa !!) they're suddenly in the spotlight, speaking at social media conferences and expected to have answers to every question...

In some companies this leads to social media's transformation from the "ugly, red-headed, step-child" to the "prom queen" overnight.  Worse yet, because the tools are accessible, cheap (or free) the explosive interest in social media often sets off more unchecked development and experimentation across the organization.

Perhaps "How do we get this under control?" is a better question to ask.

If it's true that roughly 80% of companies are actively engaging in social media right now - we're already behind the eight ball on a "top-down" leadership approach. If this is true -- most companies aren't starting from scratch!  Their social media efforts have grown the way Internet sites did:  organically, often within silos, originating from either the bottom or mid-level up, and typically without a ton of executive oversight. 

While this has led to some incredibly successful and promising social media efforts, the organic growth and scattered ownership has also led to the development of digital channels that may be collectively described as:
  • scattered
  • silo driven
  • narrow or limited
  • not collboartive across departments
  • difficult to coordinate
  • redundant
  • questionably focused
  • questionably valuable
  • not well integrated with other properties
  • difficult to measure and justify
  • not strategically driven

In truth, the train left the station awhile ago. 

There is no easy way to seize ownership or control as it chugs down the tracks.  In truth, most companies are doing well if they manage to run along side runaway social media in an effort to mitigate risk and keep pace with the level of proliferation and change.  In most organizations, even with savvy, early adopting leadership at the helm, success is found in silos -- many people are playing catch up... and there are plenty of people who are totally in the dark.  So, even when a core group "gets it" there are still many practical challenges relative to mobilizing and coordinating solid, organization-wide delivery and service within digital and social channels.

Before enterprise steps in to "own and control" it needs need to make sure it knows how to drive!  

One of my current (very large) clients has over 50 digital media properties (no, this is not a joke). Out of this mix, I'd guess that maybe 25 are websites in various forms...from the main, branded corporate site to product sites, channels, lead generation and microsites, audience-specific sites, support sites and everything in between.  Then they have a number of different, audience specific Twitter Channels, several Facebook Fan Pages, multiple YouTube Channels, Slideshare, and other stuff.

There are many different owners and even third parties involved in the development and maintenance of the company's digital media presence, from marketing, sales, development, support, product, customer service and everything in between. It all grew organically, and exponentially in a short period of time, with little executive oversight.  There are incredible pockets of knowledge, experience, insight and core competency here, and there is a strong sense of ownership aligned to various properties.

As a consultant tasked with helping the organization streamline the digital media footprint I have been challenged to help this client figure out how to create more accountability, reign in development and drive better results within various properties. 

Asking "Who should own social media"isn't really productive or conducive to progress.

It would be absoutely foolish of me to come in blathering about centralized ownership. It would only result in  stakeholder resistance and discussions that get personal, tense and politically charged.  This approach could very well lead to stakeholder rebellion as the various owners assume that we (The executive sponsor I serve, his team and myself) are trying to take away ownership, control, "call their babies ugly", slow them down, tell them how to do their jobs, destroy their innovative spirit, kill their time-to-market.... or insert a relevant complaint or expletive here...

We must shift the conversation.

To provide pithy, useful answers about ownership, I assert we need to first to get very real about what we'er doing, and figure out how to collectively drive digital and social media to the next level. In my next post, I'll offer some practical recommendations for this but first...

I want to know what you  - my smart, insatiable readers think.  What's your reaction to the "ownership" question?  What has been your experience? What's your response to this (rather hastily assembled) rant?  I'm all ears!


adamcohen said...

Leigh - you managed to capture the reality is a very sharp way, and I would wager that all companies (possible exception Zappos and other digitally savvy startups) go through the evolution you describe.

Another whole angle to this is service providers... Where social roots in the organization I believe has a direct correlation on whether it's a PR agency, digital agency, ad agency, CRM company, research firm or independent consultant that comes in to guide and execute.

Thanks for participating yesterday - you really captured a meaningful topic from what started as a side conversation in the social media chat.

Leigh Durst said...

Adam, You are absolutely right about service providers, and I had this in but inadvertently edited it out (so hard to be brief on these topics)

It was on of the better twitter chats I've participated in yesterday - got the juices flowing! Thanks for your expert insight and for your comments.

Marc Meyer said...

In most cases, I would say I'm sorry I brought the question up, but in this case, I'm glad I did. Helluva post Leigh!

What we saw yesterday by the passion eschewed by everyone is that they don't know the answer. That's why we got so many different responses.

Thanks for bringing some clarity to the issue.

Steve Woodruff said...

Since there is an immense and fast-growing suite of networked communications methods, for all sorts of purposes, it's not productive at all to talk about anyone "owning social media." The real question is, how are we going to communicate, in our various roles and to our various audiences? That which is vaguely called "social media" will be part of that mix, but networked communications already surround us - from phone texting to Facebook to Twitter to everything else - so that's the discussion that needs to occur.

Leigh Durst said...

@marc! Thanks. See what you started?

@steve -- Spoken like a communicator, and well said. i would only add the notion of *serving others* here. How are we going to **strategically extend ** how we serve people across the digital divide - and do so in a way that is coordinated and designed to drive strategic ends.

Real Life Mad Man said...

Well said! I have nothing to add:)

Jim Matorin said...

As a business catalyst in foodservice, an industry that has a track record for being the late majority, I am now being ask to formulate social media strategy for companies. Your post Leigh is timely. I am beginning to envision a team approach where the head of the fish assembles team members from different departments that are good communicators to set up an engagement schedule outbound as well as inbound to discuss what is being discussed in the company's community. Fortunately the companies that I target are small, not the Pepsi's of the world, so easier task.

Lisa Hoffmann said...

Thanks for this, Leigh. It puts in black and white what I've been thinking about for a while now. The big question here is, "How can we maximize the company benefit generated through social media?"

Strategic oversight is essential, and that requires awareness, guidance and communication, not a power play.

We're working on coming up with a plan that will provide good, solid guidance to the leaders and early adopters among us. This comprises consultation and collaboration, instruction, setting expectations and clear guidelines. The objective is to facilitate success for, rather than wrest control from, those who can see the future.

Leigh Durst said...

@Jim I think it's a good idea to gather people across the organization with various core competencies, for sure. Will be putting up posts with more thoughts on this so stay tuned.

@Lisa Can't wait to compare notes with you on this. Will be posting about what I'm calling a "unified digital experience framework" - work in progress in the coming weeks.

Anna Barcelos said...

Leigh spoken like a true doer. Aiming to resolve existing internal issues or defining processes is definitely a priority. Looking at the big picture and then honing down to individuals across the organization who are/will be responsible for processes within the company is a huge undertaking but necessary for successful implementation of any program. So maybe the question should not be about ownership but more about how do we integrate social media into the overall strategy. You're living it so I'd especially be interested in hearing/learning more about it. Keep flying!

Pablo Edwards said...

Thanks for sharing this. What a great discussion! I had never thought about a lot of the issues, but they are certainly worth talking about!

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I’m Leigh Durst, a 20 year veteran in business, operations, customer strategy, ecommerce, digital & social media and marketing. Simply put, I’m a strategist that helps companies (start-up to blue chip) achieve business shift, create more compelling online and offline experiences. I also write, speak and teach about experience design and next-generation business. I’m a futurist, visionary, strategist, doer and connector with a passion for people and helping others. When I’m not on the road, you’ll find me in the San Francisco bay area, working, beaching it and hanging out with my family and dog.


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