“The impact that the Social Web has on business is not an ordinary effect, but a profound, permanent impact – one that forces businesses to figure out how to respond to their customers in ways that would have been unthinkable and unachievable even five years ago.”

Customers no longer rely on company controlled messages and a limited community of friends and colleagues to make buying decisions; now, they count on the opinions of millions of other people like themselves. Direct marketing is no longer the main influence on purchasing decisions. Crowd intelligence is increasingly driving customer opinion.

Although social media grew out of the business-to-consumer space, it’s equally important for business-to-business marketers. The social Web gives them unprecedented access to input from peers, gurus, and other influencers. Vendors no longer hold the keys to the kingdom; customers do.

Traditional vendor-controlled interaction channels such as call centres and corporate Web sites are being eclipsed by the proliferation of independent-minded, community-driven social channels. Customers find great value in these social Web sites because of their effectiveness at delivering well-informed, independent viewpoints and previously inaccessible competitive information.

Given these new channels of interaction and the depth of information available, it is smart business to play an active role in the social venues your customers frequent. Companies that do so are translating their engagement with the social Web into substantial and quantifiable business benefits. Your organisation can use insights from community engagement on the social Web to;

  • shorten time to market
  • drive new product developments
  • crowd-source customer support

You can exponentially increase collaboration, more easily reach target audiences to generate demand, and take advantage of extraordinary opportunities for customer intimacy.

At the heart of the social Web-enabled transformation is a power shift in which customers now own the conversation.

“Social enterprises” – those that embrace and make strategic use of this new paradigm – are achieving compelling business value at every stage of implementation. To simplify and clarify those implementation stages, we can consider a maturity model where the stages are categorised as

  • enable
  • engage
  • transform

These levels range from modest use of the technology to wholehearted embrace of the social Web to drive business transformation. Depending on your business issues and goals, as well as your ability to commit to new processes related to social networking, your organization may fit into different maturity stages.

Enablement – Listen, Understand, and Share

When organisations start out exploring the social Web, they often begin in the “enable” stage, simply using these channels to listen to what their customers are saying. Listening is one of the fundamental building blocks of an effective social enterprise strategy. It helps a company can gain a better understanding of its community, identifying promoters as well as detractors, and collecting important insights from these conversations.

In this stage, organisations also share helpful information about their products and services with customers through the social channels their customers find most convenient – whether it’s Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Google widgets, RSS feeds, community sites, or whatever else. This type of communication, which is predominantly one-way, enables you to improve brand perception and customer satisfaction through listening and sharing information, while keeping the degree of business process change relatively minor.

Engagement – Start a Dialogue and Take Action

The “engage” stage is characterised by two-way communication in which organisations support ongoing dialogue with their customers via social Web channels and take action as part of that interaction. Here, you’re proactively engaging with customers and other community members to gather feedback, answer questions, and resolve issues. The level of organisational change is greater, because in this stage, the social Web is tied into customer-facing business processes – such as customer service ticket resolution, loyalty programs, or marketing offers.

Although investments are higher, the benefits are also more compelling in that organisations typically see strong improvements in customer experience and satisfaction, resulting in heightened loyalty and trust.

Transformation – Revolutionise Business as Usual

In the final maturity stage, organisations transform their business by harnessing the exponential, viral dynamics of the social Web. In this stage, organisations generally undergo a significant change and may create entirely new business models and sources of revenue powered by the social marketplace.

Here, you can move into full-blown customer advocacy where your customers actively represent your brand. Through this type of business transformation, your organisation can fundamentally change the game and leapfrog the competition.