Today, it’s hard to imagine business without the Internet. Rewind a few years, however, and it’s amazing how many digital skeptics were still around. Case in point: In 1995, Newsweek published the now infamous article titled The Internet? Bah! Insisting the web was just a fad, the article wrote off the idea of “cyberbusiness” altogether: “We’re promised instant catalog shopping – just point and click for great deals. We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obsolete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month?”
What’s laughable, of course, is how dead wrong the author was. Each and every one of these outcomes came to fruition. We now shop, order airline tickets, make reservations and negotiate sales over the Internet – on a daily basis. Stores have become obsolete, in many cases. I’m not sharing this (as funny as it is) just to walk down memory lane. I have a point to make for companies today. Right now, we’re undergoing a business transformation just as momentous as the advent of the Internet. Its promise is almost as limitless and yet there are still holdouts who insist it’s “just a fad.”
I’m talking, of course, about social media. Facebook (FB, -3.62%), Twitter (TWTR, -1.51%), Instagram, LinkedIn (LNKD), and other networks are fundamentally changing how we reach and interact with customers, offer products and services, communicate with employees and — in a nutshell — do business. Social media is the next wave of the digital transformation that started with the web. And its bottom-line impact is proving just as huge. For businesses today, the best way to keep your company successful, in my estimation, is to fully embrace social media. Not incorporating Twitter, Facebook, and other social channels into your strategy in 2015 is roughly the equivalent of insisting the web was just a fad a decade or so ago: backward-looking, blinkered, and above all, a serious business liability.
I’m sure that for many people this may be dead obvious and hardly worth pointing out. Of course, social media is here to stay. But it’s amazing how many senior executives, CEOs, and decision makers still — in 2015 — remain confused about what social media does and how it can contribute to a business. Granted, I come from a social media background. The tool we built helps more than 10 million people and users at more than 800 of the Fortune 1000 companies manage their social media accounts. I saw the potential in social media from the beginning, and I’m surrounded by huge companies that leverage it everyday to boost their earnings.
So let me make the case with hard numbers, not anecdotes and sound bites. Three-quarters of online adults in the U.S. now use social media sites, according to the Pew Internet Project. If we’re talking just about millennials and young people — i.e. tomorrow’s consumers — that number gets dramatically higher. (How many teenagers do you know who aren’t on social media?) More telling, however, is how much people are using social media: The average user logs in for nearly 1.7 hours every day or 12 hours a week, according to GlobalWebIndex. Millennials watch more YouTube than TV, by some accounts. Facebook’s 1.4 billion monthly active users around the world spend an average of 20-plus minutes a day, everyday, 365 days a year, on the network. (Little wonder that social media now drives more traffic to websites than search engines.)
Lots of companies, of course, get this. Their customers are on social media. Their competitors are on social media. So it would be crazy for them not to be there, too. Nine out of 10 U.S. companies, in fact, are already using social media. And they’re already seeing concrete results: 90% of businesses see increased exposure and more than half report improved sales from social media. So let’s put the social media ROI question to bed once and for all. But the reality is that many businesses still aren’t on social and those that are often fail to tap social media’s full potential. A 2012 McKinsey Global Institute Report concludes that social technologies stand to unlock $1.3 trillion (yes, trillion) in business value. And yet, only 3% of businesses are maximizing this opportunity. Marketing, it turns out, is just the tip of the social media iceberg. Social tools are being used to streamline customer service, for shopping and commerce, for product development, sales, and HR. Social applications like Facebook at Work and Slack, meanwhile have changed collaboration inside companies, breaking down silos and boosting productivity. In the same way that the web itself transformed almost all parts of business, so too is social media changing not one thing but everything.
So why aren’t more businesses on board? For starters, there’s an ever increasing number of social networks out there; the options are changing all the time and it can seem overwhelming. What networks do I use? How do I start? What’s worth my time? On top of that, there’s still a real reluctance on the part of senior management to dedicate resources to social media, partly because results can be hard to measure compared to old-school media like web, print, and broadcast. I’d argue, however, that both of those issues are eminently solvable. Social media education and onboarding programs have come of age — strategy and structure is out there, oftentimes free, for those looking to design a social media plan. Meanwhile, improved web tools can now track and quantify social media efforts, validating results in dollars-and-cents terms. The argument so often cited by executives — that social media is too new, too fluid and too “soft” and unquantifiable to merit serious consideration — no longer holds water.