Interview with Brian Solis: Social Media and the Adaptive Business

We’re very excited to have author and social media expert Brian Solis as our guest at the next SecondFloor speaker series event. Taking place Thursday, January 27th at 5:30 PM on the second floor of BroadVision headquarters in Redwood City, the event will be an excellent opportunity to learn about how companies can use social media effectively, both internally and externally. For more information and to RSVP (space is limited) please visit:

Leading up to the event, we talked to Solis about social media adoption, collaboration and brand management online.

How can companies with no social media experience identify a good or bad social media plan?
Even companies with social media experience can have trouble identifying a good social media plan.
With social media, it’s like the starter’s pistol went off and everyone started running, and not a lot of us stayed behind to question: “Why am I in this race to begin with? Who is going to run it and why?” The important aspect of social media is the ability to define your desired outcomes before you even design a program.

Distinguishing a good and bad social media plan is all about design, purpose and outcome. Businesses tend not to consider these three things when developing social media programs. Much of social media is free or inexpensive, but there is also time and resources that need to be considered. A company can create a Facebook page for free, but what happens when someone asks a question on that page’s wall?

In a recent blog post, you discussed Dell’s baptism by fire and how Dell Hell forced them to “listen, engage and adapt”, and ultimately create a very successful social media plan. Do you think it is necessary for a company to have to go through some sort of baptism by fire before it can adopt an effective social media plan?
Baptism by fire certainly is a way that some companies learn. I call it the “ah ha” versus the “uh oh”. There are companies that get it. Starbucks gets it; they’ve been very proactive from the beginning. Dell gets it, but they had to go through the “uh oh” first. People say that Dell is a tired example, but I’ll tell you why I love Dell as a social media case study: they learned the hard way and CEO Michael Dell cares. When you have those two things together, you’re essentially working the ends to the middle. Dell ended up realizing that Dell Hell can’t happen again, so they put in protocols to deal with flare ups before they burn too hot or too bright. What you see today is their social media command center, which feeds every aspect of Dell, from technical support to development to customer service to sales, and even human resources and finance. Each one of those departments has adopted a social extension, which is huge. Dell realized they needed to collaborate internally before it could collaborate externally, and it must be both proactive and reactive.

So if a company is having difficulty being social internally, if departments within a company are not being transparent with one another, should that company hold off on adopting a social media plan?
I don’t think they should hold off, but they do need to think about what they want to accomplish first. They should have the infrastructure in place and be ready to deal with a crisis. Every big company has some sort of crisis communications or crisis contingency plan in place, and this isn’t unlike that. So companies need to have a contingency plan in place in case they do need to collaborate with one another. What would that look like? Who are the point people? These are things that should be defined up front.

Everything a business does should have a plan around it, but many don’t when it comes to social media. Social media came to the organization from the outside in, and from the bottom up. It came from you and me, and everyone who uses Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. There’s no IT department to set everything up, so amateurs are trying to get their arms around it and put some processes in place. There’s a lot of chaos and social anarchy going on, so we need to think through scenarios, even if it’s just for marketing, just in case.

What kind of climate are you encountering when working with executives who are interested in learning about social media? Do they embrace it or are they nervous?
It’s all over the board. I work with a lot of executives and try to help them design their organization around social media. I also work on the management side, and one thing I’ve learned is it’s different every time.

I don’t know of any businesses that are saying, “Social media is our future,” and I don’t know that any business should. Social media should be a focus, not the focal point. It’s not about making the business social; it’s about making it more adaptive.

The lessons that social media teaches us has benefits for the entire organization. Good service oriented businesses have existed forever. Nordstrom came before Zappos, and before Nordstrom there was probably the local shoe store. There are always some elements that remain consistent; culture, communication, compassion, service. Social media amplified these things.

The thing that consultants and internal champions need to realize is the executive might not be as into social media as they are, and that’s ok. Your job is not to talk about the need for Facebook or Twitter. Your job is to figure out the need for your business to be on Facebook or Twitter, and the impact it will have on the bottom line. Connecting those dots changes the game, and that happens when you stop reading Mashable and start looking at click paths and running analytic reports, and other things that are unique to your business and don’t exist in blog posts or books.

Does an established brand, like Nordstrom, run the risk of diluting their own brand if they adopt social media plans?
To some extent; even though Apple doesn’t have a social media presence, they are paying close attention. At a minimum, intelligence is critical. If a company wants to move beyond intelligence and actually be engaging on a social network, it has to do two things. The first is to define what value it can put into and get out of the network. The second is it has to develop a plan that that brings the brand to life in a way that embellishes rather than dilutes is.

One thing that needs to be discussed, and I’m surprised that this doesn’t come up more: what is the persona of the company? If you’re going to have a presence on the web, your persona is something that needs to be defined. Companies often use a style guide; what the logo looks like, how it should be presented and under what circumstances. If it’s so important to have that guide for a brand’s logo, why not have it for a company’s social media presence? If Judy and Bob start Tweeting and interacting on behalf of a company, they’re diluting that company’s brand with the personal identity of Judy and Bob. When you do that, you lose the luster and mystique of the brand. The brand style guide has to include social media elements.

On a more personal level, what do you enjoy about helping companies become more social?
I really enjoy helping companies develop a new sense of purpose. By the time I’m done working with a company, it’s less about social media and more about helping them reinvent an aspect of their business and helping them become relevant again. That’s my personal mission as well. I don’t see myself as much as a social media strategist as I do a business strategist. A lot of what I focus on is change-management and organizational transformation, which for me is personally fulfilling and exciting.