by Michael Idinopulos
on September 22, 2014

3 Predictions from Social Shakeup 2014

Last week was a great time to be in Atlanta. That’s where I was for the Employee Advocacy Summit (Monday) and for  Social Shakeup (TuesdayWednesday).

Social Shakeup is an interesting event. As the name implies, it isn’t a “normal” social business conference. It’s a gathering of social business early adopters. Whether they’re industry practitioners, analysts, bloggers, consultants, or vendors they have one thing in common: they are passionate about corporate use of social media.

When I blog about conferences, I try to go below and behind what was said from the podium. I like to capture the mood of the conference, the vibe in the room. The public presentations are only one part of that. The other part—often the more revealing part—is what people are saying away from the podium: audience questions in the breakouts, hallway conversations, random remarks during the cocktail hour, and of course the Twitterverse. Sometimes you can feel the pulse of an industry just by looking at which sessions are full and which ones are empty.

This year’s Social Shakeup felt bipolar.

Most of the conversation at both Social Shakeup and the Employee Advocacy Summit revolved around social values like openness, transparency, collaboration, empowerment, and celebration. Attendees praised social as a democratizer and an equalizer. They talked about the ALS challenge, and how one person with a good idea mobilized millions to fight a bad disease. They talked about subject matter experts who became influential spokespeople for their companies by blogging what they thought and knew. They talked about the collaboration economy, and about corporations who created new revenue streams by embracing innovations of passionate (and often rogue) employees, customers, and ecosystem partners. They insisted that social is not just another marketing channel. It’s a different way of doing things, a new set of values, a whole new approach to marketing.

This was best captured in a beautiful phrase coined by Brian Solis in his opening keynote: The Social Embrace. The appeal of social media, Brian said, is the way it embraces you, makes you feel human, connected, and good. That’s something that traditional media can’t touch because it’s not personal.

At the same time, there was a smaller but noticeable contingent of attendees talking about a different set of values: measurement, accountability, ROI, These people were talking about marketing funnels, conversion rates, business process, scalability, and repeatability. They argued that social is just another channel, just another way of broadcasting marketing messages to an audience.

Pay attention to this debate. It is the heart of everything.

Social media and corporate marketing play by different rules. Social media is all about spontaneous, unmanaged, connections between individuals. Corporate marketing is all about consistency of message, risk management, and ROI.

The two groups represent very different visions of the future of social marketing. Simply put, the question is this: Will social media make corporate marketing more spontaneous, open, and bottom-up? Or will corporate marketing make social media more planned, closed, and top-down?

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

Listening on Monday to the various presenters at the Employee Advocacy Summit, it sounded as if corporations are truly immovable Yes, people gave stirring examples of individual employees who created fresh, honest content that was embraced and amplified by their companies. But there was also a lot of talk about how difficult it is to get marketing departments to understand. Employee advocacy seems to succeed not because corporations are becoming more democratic, but because some corporate marketers know good content when they see it.

Jeremiah Owyang’s Wednesday morning keynote left a very different impression. Listening to Owyang, it was hard not to walk away convinced that social media is that unstoppable force. Uber transformed transportation. Airbnb revolutionized hospitality. Crowdfunding models like Indiegogo are transforming finance. Elance-oDesk is challenging our whole notion of what it means to work for a company. And that’s only the beginning. It’s the dawn of a new day, Owyang argued, because the economics are simply better. With social media, people can produce (through co-creation or sharing) almost anything better, faster, cheaper than traditional organizations.

Which vision of the future will win out? Here are my top three predictions:

Prediction #1. Some industries will be severely disrupted by the sharing economy. It won’t be everywhere and it won’t be all industries, but for affected industries it will raise existential questions that go far deeper than how their employees use social media. For industries like hospitality, transportation, real estate, and temp staffing, social media poses a fundamental threat to their entire business model.  Those companies will need to figure out new ways to deliver value, or they will cease to exist.

Prediction #2. Some companies (primarily consumer brands) will learn how to make meaningful, spontaneous connections with their audiences as a matter of scalable, measurable, repeatable marketing process. Even today, the social marketing rock stars aren’t leaving this stuff up to chance. They’re not waiting for some random employee to post the next viral YouTube sensation. They’re making sure they’re in the conversation, and they’re dedicating resources to it. Oreos “dunk in the dark” tweet at the Super Bowl was no accident. Oreo and its agency 360i had the talent, the tools, and the processes lined up and ready to go. When the blackout happened, they were ready. We’ll see a lot more of that sophistication.

Prediction #3. For everyone else, social’s impact on Sales will ultimately be greater than its impact on Marketing.  Selling is and always will be about authentic connections and individual, 1-1 relationships. In that sense, it’s tailor-made for social in a way that marketing never will be. The most successful corporations on social will be the ones who empower their reps to use social repeatably, measurably, at scale.

While no one knows exactly where all this will land, it’s clear that there’s a lot of change going on. Social Shakeup 2014 raised more questions than it answered for me. That’s a good thing.

In the immortal words of Outkast: Shake it like a Polaroid picture.

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