business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Arriving in an airport last week to make a speech at a nearby conference, I found my name flashing from the future. No, I didn’t have some strange vision; rather I noticed the driver picking me up displaying my name on an iPad. He explained that he has a special app that allows him to track his next passenger’s flight and, at the appropriate moment, turns the tablet into a very cool, easy-to-read display sign.

Once again the future was calling and reminding me that everything is changing.

Assuming today is an average day on the Internet, something like 70 percent of Facebook’s 800 million users will check out their accounts by mid-morning and a large percentage of that group will do so before having breakfast or getting dressed. Before the sun goes down tonight, 250 million new photos will be posted on Facebook and a similar number of updates or Tweets have been added to Twitter.

If you think that doesn’t matter to you, stop and think again because increasingly, social networking is become essential to business. (Then again, since you are reading this on, the odds are that revolutionary Internet based activities won’t surprise you.)

Here are some realities you need to consider:

• The population of social web users is growing more diverse and older every day. No longer is it the domain of college students sharing information about courses, teachers and parties.

• Today one of the most talked about topics throughout the social media is food: what people are eating, cooking, buying and what they think about all those experiences. Those conversations lead to specific purchasing decisions and opinion building.

• The growing reality is that shoppers use social networking connections with friends to gather opinions and feedback, but use company connections to get ideas about where to shop and what to buy. Brands and stores can immediately learn what customers are saying and what they really want, gaining real-time feedback. The results are dramatic: When shoppers get a response onTwitter they become 60 to 65 percent more likely to follow that brand and make a purchase.

• If you have any doubt on how much power those discussion can pack, consider the use of social networking on a much larger level and how sites like Facebook have been credited, in part, for revolutions toppling long time regimes in places like Egypt, Yemen and Libya.

In other words, every day the world of social networking matters to you, your business, your associates and your customers. In fact, each day it matters more because the social network population is growing and the means to link up gets easier with the explosion of mobile devices. The power of this new force of communication is staggering based on any measure and it’s time the business discussion of social networking becomes a priority topic.

That very realization is what convinced the Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council of North America to make social networking the subject of its newest study. The first part of that study is being unveiled today at the FMI Midwinter Executive Conference and is available on line by clicking here. More sections of the report will be released throughout the next few months and a second phase of research is planned for 2013.

(In case you have missed this disclaimer before, I serve as Research Director of the Council and am actively working on this study.)

The Council members - a diverse group of retailers including large chains such as Walmart, Kroger, Publix and Meijer, along with regional and independent operators - felt the industry needed a study of social media that would provide a fundamental understanding of this new force. The study, being conducted by the Integer Group in Colorado, attempts to demystify the basics of social networking, examines the basic human needs fulfilled by networking, the expectations and opportunities facing businesses, and the impact on communication and relationships for retailers and brands in this new era.

Much of what happens on the social web is simple human dynamics super-charged by technology. For example, one metaphor offered in the first part of the study is a comparison of social networking to the cliques and social circles that dominate the halls of every high school. The same elements of popularity and group dynamics that make some circles more popular and populous can guide companies on how to successfully participate in the social web. Just as a boring group will struggle to gain popularity in high school, a boring presence on the social web is unlikely to draw followers or customers. Rather, businesses need to determine what benefit they are bringing to the realm of Facebook, Twitter or other networks to become a popular, useful and sought after connection to shoppers.

The Council members acknowledge that they, like many other executives, need a better understanding of social networking and the forces making networks like Facebook so globally popular so quickly. An overview of the entire work is also available at , outlining all five sections of the first phase of the report and the planned release dates for each.

It’s time to start a whole new conversation in a whole new way.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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