April 19, 2014

There is only one objective in social media: create learning networks

There is too much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth about social media objectives and strategy these days. We all assume that our organizations are unique and that we must devote great sums of time and money to figuring out what our particular motivation is for social media and how we will carry it out.

We’re wired as humans to believe that we are each unique and different—indeed, this perception shoulders the bulk of our self-esteem. And yes, we are all unique. A little. But in most things, we’re the same and we can usually acknowledge that.

Not in our businesses, though. In the course of hundreds of interviews with companies over my career, the “yes but we’re different” mantra was a familiar refrain. Companies that made commodity products would tell me with straight faces that even their financial processes were unique—GAAP be damned—and that they needed to customize their software to fit “our ways of doing things.” This also meant they paid millions extra in consulting fees to change the software and millions more the next time they wanted to upgrade their software.

I find that we’re applying the same logic to social media. Let’s sit down and figure out our unique objectives and strategies before we do anything.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have objectives and strategies for social media. I’m just saying that we shouldn’t assume, as we do by default, that ours are much different from anyone else’s.

There is only one objective in social media and it is common across all companies—even across the infamous divide between B2B and B2C: Create learning networks.

And there is only one strategy for carrying out this objective: Find people who are good at developing and disseminating ideas to contribute to and facilitate those networks.

That’s it.

What is a learning network?
The reason I say this is that another hard-wired part of us is the desire to learn. And learning is integral to buying—especially in B2B. Recommend products and services that you haven’t thoroughly researched and you will most likely be out of a job.

But it also applies in B2C. Toyota’s market share wasn’t built by Toyota’s marketing; it was built by Consumer Reports.

Every buyer wants to learn at all stages of the buying process. But no buyer wants to be sold during all stages of the buying cycle.

The purpose of social media is to create learning networks that buyers want to join. The enticements are ideas and education. That means social media are extensions of our content development and dissemination processes. By creating content that offers relevant, timely, and useful ideas and education for buyers at all stages of the buying process, we create the incentives for buyers to engage with us in conversation and community. Whether it’s blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, or private communities that we build ourselves, the common thread is that by focusing on learning we build and retain buyers’ interest.

Here are the key elements of learning networks:

  • Create an internal learning network. You need to build an internal network that focuses on identifying internal thought leaders and building alliances with external academics and customers who can help develop and test ideas. Primary and secondary research provides the inspiration for some ideas and the objective justification for others. Internal knowledge share sessions and reward and recognition programs provide the motivation for thought leaders to emerge inside the organization and help imbue a thought leadership mindset into the culture.
  • Create a content development process. Using ideas from the learning network, marketing needs to develop content. Marketers must become publishers, with a process for refining and presenting thought leadership content through various vehicles, (such as conference presentations, white papers, social media, etc.). Marketing needs professional content developers who know how to collaborate with thought leaders to develop clear, compelling packages. A calendar helps marketing plan out the frequency and focus of its output. Marketing needs to develop materials that are appropriate to each stage of the buying process, so that customers and salespeople can get the right information at the right time. Marketing and sales need to agree on the alignment of content to the different buying stages so that sales will get the right signals about when and how to approach customers for a sale.
  • Integrate the internal learning network and content processes with social media. Your internal learning network should integrate with the ones you want to build for customers. Internal thought leaders should use social media as a test bed and developing ground for ideas that they later disseminate in more polished form. So for example, a tweet or a posting in a LinkedIn forum leads to blog post, which leads to a video, which leads to a conference presentation, white paper, or private event for top customers.

If learning is the objective, the rest falls into place. Idea- and education-based content is the fuel for building community. The rest is promotion.

What do you think?

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  • http://soloportfolio.wordpress.com/ Clare McDermott

    Chris:

    Oh, fresh air. I’m forwarding this on to a few of my clients. Thanks for breaking it down so cleanly & competently. -Clare

  • http://soloportfolio.wordpress.com Clare McDermott

    Chris:

    Oh, fresh air. I’m forwarding this on to a few of my clients. Thanks for breaking it down so cleanly & competently. -Clare

  • http://www.iangoldsmid.com/ Ian Goldsmid

    You got to the nub of it – totally agree

  • http://www.iangoldsmid.com Ian Goldsmid

    You got to the nub of it – totally agree

  • http://www.businessesgrow.com/blog Mark W Schaefer

    I respectfully disagree.

    If I went into my boss in the teeth of the recession and asked her to fund a social media marketing program to create “learning networks” she would kick me out the door. And she should. The purpose of any corporate marketing initiative is to create shareholder value (i.e. profits). Period.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.
    @markwschaefer

  • http://www.businessesgrow.com/blog Mark W Schaefer

    I respectfully disagree.

    If I went into my boss in the teeth of the recession and asked her to fund a social media marketing program to create “learning networks” she would kick me out the door. And she should. The purpose of any corporate marketing initiative is to create shareholder value (i.e. profits). Period.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.
    @markwschaefer

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com/ Chris Koch

    Mark,
    Marketing has to help buyers learn. If it doesn’t, she’ll see little impact from marketing on shareholder value.

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com Chris Koch

    Mark,
    Marketing has to help buyers learn. If it doesn’t, she’ll see little impact from marketing on shareholder value.

  • http://www.LastingLinks.com/ Robert Dunford

    ‘Soon starting a (thought) Leadership Council on Memories Preservation and Sharing based on the ideas from your Feb., 2009 webcast on this topic. The CEOs, suppliers and academics I have spoken with so far are unanimously enthusuastic about the idea.

    I expect the same positive results received from a session of hospital CEOs I facilitated on managed care several years ago that led to a sea change in our business’ approach to healthcare, as a result of these same concepts.

    Thank you for your ideas. They have proven to be very powerful in my experience.

    Keep up the good work,

    Rob Dunford

    CEO/CMO, Lasting Links, Inc.

    LinkedIn.com/in/robdunford

  • http://www.LastingLinks.com Robert Dunford

    ‘Soon starting a (thought) Leadership Council on Memories Preservation and Sharing based on the ideas from your Feb., 2009 webcast on this topic. The CEOs, suppliers and academics I have spoken with so far are unanimously enthusuastic about the idea.

    I expect the same positive results received from a session of hospital CEOs I facilitated on managed care several years ago that led to a sea change in our business’ approach to healthcare, as a result of these same concepts.

    Thank you for your ideas. They have proven to be very powerful in my experience.

    Keep up the good work,

    Rob Dunford

    CEO/CMO, Lasting Links, Inc.

    LinkedIn.com/in/robdunford

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com/ Chris Koch

    Thanks, Rob. Good luck with the council!

    Chris

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com Chris Koch

    Thanks, Rob. Good luck with the council!

    Chris

  • http://www.savvyb2bmarketing.com/ Jamie Lee

    Chris,

    Your post caught my eye because I’m currently very plugged into the concept of using positive and dynamic learning experiences as a marketing tool.

    In my job as a copywriter, I often feel that I should reposition myself as a “translator of ideas.” The difficulty many businesses have in creating strong and effective educational content is that they are so close to their products and services they simply can’t experience the learning process from the perspective of a non-expert. Being able to translate the input of SMEs and in-house resources in a way that an outsider can understand is critical to laying the foundation of a long-term relationship. If a learning experience leaves the learner feeling short-changed – or, worse – more confused than when he started, the relationship is doomed. Provide the learner with immediate access to the “benefits of learning” (whether that be a greater understanding of some concept or the ability to perform a specific task), and you will have started a beautiful relationship that positions your brand as that learner’s go-to source for information on the relevant topic.

    I’m very excited about how brands will learn to use these strategies in 2010.

  • http://www.savvyb2bmarketing.com Jamie Lee

    Chris,

    Your post caught my eye because I’m currently very plugged into the concept of using positive and dynamic learning experiences as a marketing tool.

    In my job as a copywriter, I often feel that I should reposition myself as a “translator of ideas.” The difficulty many businesses have in creating strong and effective educational content is that they are so close to their products and services they simply can’t experience the learning process from the perspective of a non-expert. Being able to translate the input of SMEs and in-house resources in a way that an outsider can understand is critical to laying the foundation of a long-term relationship. If a learning experience leaves the learner feeling short-changed – or, worse – more confused than when he started, the relationship is doomed. Provide the learner with immediate access to the “benefits of learning” (whether that be a greater understanding of some concept or the ability to perform a specific task), and you will have started a beautiful relationship that positions your brand as that learner’s go-to source for information on the relevant topic.

    I’m very excited about how brands will learn to use these strategies in 2010.

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com/ Chris Koch

    Hi Jamie,

    Good point. We have to make sure that we translate out of the technical or jargonese so that learning can happen. Thanks!

    Chris

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com Chris Koch

    Hi Jamie,

    Good point. We have to make sure that we translate out of the technical or jargonese so that learning can happen. Thanks!

    Chris

  • http://www.debaillon.com/ Thierry de Baillon

    Chris,

    Thanks for this insightful post. But isn’t ANY network a learning network? Customers communities are about learning what customers want and may bring to the brand. Internal communities are about informal collaborative learning…

    Creating this kind of awareness will help stepping from “engaging with customers” to getting things seriously done, provided we ask ourselves this simple question: who do we want to learn from?

    Thierry

  • http://www.debaillon.com Thierry de Baillon

    Chris,

    Thanks for this insightful post. But isn’t ANY network a learning network? Customers communities are about learning what customers want and may bring to the brand. Internal communities are about informal collaborative learning…

    Creating this kind of awareness will help stepping from “engaging with customers” to getting things seriously done, provided we ask ourselves this simple question: who do we want to learn from?

    Thierry

  • Pingback: [article] Chris Koch: There is only one objective in social media: create learning networks – elearning4

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com/ Chris Koch

    Hi Thierry,

    I think that every network should be a learning network, but many are viewed more as a way to broadcast messages or sell. Your question succinctly captures what customers and prospects are looking for when they join networks. We need that fulfill that hope. Thanks for the comment!

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com Chris Koch

    Hi Thierry,

    I think that every network should be a learning network, but many are viewed more as a way to broadcast messages or sell. Your question succinctly captures what customers and prospects are looking for when they join networks. We need that fulfill that hope. Thanks for the comment!

  • http://C3-ssi.com/ Bob MacKie

    This is the first time I have seen the essential purpose of business oriented social media captured. I spent many years in B2B sales and moved to eLearning when I realized that the web provided a more efficient way to accomplish one of the core duties of a B2B sales person; which is to teach customers about product. After a few more years and with the rise of social media it was becoming possible to have a two way conversation with the customer. The “we the experts” will tell “you the user” how to use our product is so hardwired in many marketers that they often miss the huge value of listening to the customer. Sales people . . . at least successful sales people . . . come to realize it is really important to keep your mouth shut and ears open if you want to hear what your customer wants and needs. Marketers often use market research to determine customer needs. But typical market research strengths of structured questions make it difficult for customers to communicate ideas. Random sampling techniques are no way to find a customer interested in having a conversation.
    It is very important to highlight that in your strategy “Find people who are good at developing and disseminating ideas to contribute to and facilitate those networks” . . . some of those people should be customers. You do make this point below “You need to build an internal network that focuses on identifying internal thought leaders and building alliances with external academics and customers who can help develop and test ideas.” I love the reference to external academics too. I went back to school late in life and was blown away by the new ideas I found amongst the graduate students and professors there. Our Universities and our customers are both underutilized resources.
    You state:
    “The purpose of social media is to create learning networks that buyers want to join.” – Agreed.
    “The enticements are ideas and education.” Agreed and add . . . for some . . . participation in the conversation.
    I propose:
    The strength of social media is two way communication.
    Nice blog Chris.

  • http://C3-ssi.com Bob MacKie

    This is the first time I have seen the essential purpose of business oriented social media captured. I spent many years in B2B sales and moved to eLearning when I realized that the web provided a more efficient way to accomplish one of the core duties of a B2B sales person; which is to teach customers about product. After a few more years and with the rise of social media it was becoming possible to have a two way conversation with the customer. The “we the experts” will tell “you the user” how to use our product is so hardwired in many marketers that they often miss the huge value of listening to the customer. Sales people . . . at least successful sales people . . . come to realize it is really important to keep your mouth shut and ears open if you want to hear what your customer wants and needs. Marketers often use market research to determine customer needs. But typical market research strengths of structured questions make it difficult for customers to communicate ideas. Random sampling techniques are no way to find a customer interested in having a conversation.
    It is very important to highlight that in your strategy “Find people who are good at developing and disseminating ideas to contribute to and facilitate those networks” . . . some of those people should be customers. You do make this point below “You need to build an internal network that focuses on identifying internal thought leaders and building alliances with external academics and customers who can help develop and test ideas.” I love the reference to external academics too. I went back to school late in life and was blown away by the new ideas I found amongst the graduate students and professors there. Our Universities and our customers are both underutilized resources.
    You state:
    “The purpose of social media is to create learning networks that buyers want to join.” – Agreed.
    “The enticements are ideas and education.” Agreed and add . . . for some . . . participation in the conversation.
    I propose:
    The strength of social media is two way communication.
    Nice blog Chris.

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  • http://www.christopherakoch.com/ Chris Koch

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks for your excellent insights as a salesperson. That’s an excellent point that the conversations themselves will lead to ideas and learning. I think of social media as conversation and community through sharing. The conversation feeds our human need to be connected and belong to a community. And sharing fulfills our desire to help others and frankly our need to be competitive and show that we’re smart. But nothing feels better than when we engage in direct conversation through these channels (like now). By making those conversations learning-based as you advise, we give customers and prospects a reason to continue the dialog and move toward a sale. Great stuff. Thanks!

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com Chris Koch

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks for your excellent insights as a salesperson. That’s an excellent point that the conversations themselves will lead to ideas and learning. I think of social media as conversation and community through sharing. The conversation feeds our human need to be connected and belong to a community. And sharing fulfills our desire to help others and frankly our need to be competitive and show that we’re smart. But nothing feels better than when we engage in direct conversation through these channels (like now). By making those conversations learning-based as you advise, we give customers and prospects a reason to continue the dialog and move toward a sale. Great stuff. Thanks!

  • Jody Raines

    Chris,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I absolutely use the social networks to learn, and that’s part of a strategy. I also enjoy sharing things I’ve learned. What’s amazing to me is to connect with others who find similar stories of interest, and their generosity in sharing. With an information stream that is so rich with content, it enables all of us to grow in collective knowledge must faster than ever before.

    I frequently am asked what I like about “social media”, especially Twitter, and sharing information is one of my primary motivations. Unlike the misconception that people ‘tweet’ about what they had for lunch, my thought is that it’s more like a collection of headlines – where the story is represented by traveling to the link. That’s the way I read a newspaper as well – scanning the headlines, then diving in when I come across a story that I want to learn more about.

    Excellent post. Thank you!

  • http://www.webmarcom.net Jody Raines

    Chris,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I absolutely use the social networks to learn, and that’s part of a strategy. I also enjoy sharing things I’ve learned. What’s amazing to me is to connect with others who find similar stories of interest, and their generosity in sharing. With an information stream that is so rich with content, it enables all of us to grow in collective knowledge must faster than ever before.

    I frequently am asked what I like about “social media”, especially Twitter, and sharing information is one of my primary motivations. Unlike the misconception that people ‘tweet’ about what they had for lunch, my thought is that it’s more like a collection of headlines – where the story is represented by traveling to the link. That’s the way I read a newspaper as well – scanning the headlines, then diving in when I come across a story that I want to learn more about.

    Excellent post. Thank you!

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  • TaylorEllwood

    It's an interesting perspective and a good meta-analysis of why people are on social media sites, though it may be overly simplistic in the sense that not all people will view social media as a learning network. But I liked it and I will add your blog to my blog list.

  • rgwc

    Thanks for the interesting thought!

    Many naively confuse selling for marketing. Marketing differs from selling in that marketing is fundamentally based on fulfilling unmet needs; selling is centered on pushing a product or service.

    Learning about unmet needs is necessary for effective marketing; it isn't for selling. And in our consumption-based economy, marketing is necessary for business success.

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