It's not putting too fine a point on it to say that social media is working its way into businesses, which are trying to figure out how to take advantage of the ability to communicate and collaborate in new ways. VARs are taking notice, too, and while still in the nascent stage, some have started offering social media services.
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The interest is primarily driven by emerging case studies showing businesses deriving real value from social media, observed Ryan Morris, principal consultant of Morris Management Partners Inc. "In the past, social media had plenty of hype, but not a lot of evidence," he said. "Now that stories are more widely distributed about how social media can accelerate business processes, improve marketing programs [and] increase customer satisfaction, more companies are paying attention, and they tend not to have social media skills of their own."
Social media software has a seemingly bright future in the enterprise. IDC has projected that worldwide, enterprise social software applications market revenue will grow from $1 billion in 2012 to $2.7 billion by 2017.
Yet, there is limited demand for VARs to offer social media professional services to their customers right now, according to Paul Gillin, author and principal at Framingham, Mass.-based Paul Gillin Communications, a social media firm specializing in training and strategy.
Gillin works with Profitecture Inc., which specializes in social media training for B2B companies and channel partners, and "we've been trying to promote to them to use our training to train [their] customers, and there is only modest interest," he said. But partners are interested. "They see social as a new way to generate leads, but they don't seem to be very interested in training their customers yet."
As a result, observers say, there are not a lot of formal training products yet. The most common services include defining social media policy, training for how to use social media for specific business purposes, social media monitoring, IT security tools and services, marketing strategy and other business consulting, according to Morris. "Many engagements are not formally structured, but that's a problem," he said. "When the offerings are formally defined, it's easier to set pricing, sell the value, prevent scope creep, etc."
Ryan MorrisMorris Management Partners
Both Morris and Gillin said they are not aware of other professional social media certifications besides Yammer's. "In my view, a certification has a very limited utility unless it's provided by a professional body,'' Gillin said. All social media providers have training/certification programs, "but there's not a lot of market value in them yet," added Morris.
Certified Yammer partner imason Inc. has been working with customers on delivering social solutions integrated with Microsoft SharePoint for years, said Vicki Thomson, managing partner for alliances and talent at the Toronto-based professional services provider. One of its clients is ING Direct in Canada, which has an intranet built on SharePoint, and CEO Peter Aceto wanted the ability to reach out to employees to make ING a better place to work, said Thomson. The other challenge was finding subject experts within the organization because if a new employee joined and wanted to find out about a certain part of the business, it wasn't easy to do. Imason built a social collaborative solution on top of SharePoint that allows employees to ask questions and participate in dialog right on its home page.
Imason became a member of Yammer's Customer Engagement Partner Program after being nominated by Microsoft when it acquired the company. Thomson said imason was nominated because of its body of work around social implementations. As part of the certification process, two of imason's consultants went through intensive training on Yammer.
The company offers a four-step plan to help customers launch a Yammer network: defining a vision statement on the value of enterprise social; creating strategies for recruiting and supporting community managers and developing a training program; technical support for Yammer integration with an existing technology infrastructure; and build a community adoption strategy.
While social is not a big portion of imason's business presently, Thomson said, "There's huge awareness about the possibilities of enterprise social inside the organization, and many of our customers are in the awareness stage." She anticipates significant growth in deploying solutions in the next six to 18 months. "It's a daily conversation" about what customers are thinking about, what benefits social can provide and how imason can help, she said.
The opportunity to connect, collaborate and innovate within the organization and with partners of the organization is driving interest, she said. "The young workforce coming in to large organizations [uses] social tools … to communicate in their everyday lives, so being able to use these tools to communicate inside the organization is important as well,'' Thomson said.
Some holdups to implementing social media professional services might be due to time, resources and money, she believes, and the fact that social networks are not high on IT's or the business's priority list.
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"But there's that 'How do I make social work inside my company when I'm so used to using it in my personal life,' so there's curiosity and it's becoming more and more clear," Thomson said.
Gillin also believes the interest is there between partners and their clients since "all of them have the same challenges, which is generating leads and finding new sources of leads and better qualifying and nurturing the leads they've got." He said there may be some reticence about deploying social systems since partners tend to be solutions providers for hardware and software as well as the services to keep both running, more so than business consulting services. "Social media at this point would be perceived as a marketing service, and in my experience, not many technology channel companies have a marketing advisory practice, so this is a new area for them."
At the same time, however, hardware partners are aware that hardware sales are on the decline and margins are tight, Gillin noted.
"Channel partners are getting this message loud and clear that you have to diversify your business; there's no profit in selling boxes any longer." The more savvy partners know they have to become a services business since it's a growing revenue stream, "because complexity creates demand for services."
The complexity in social media, according to Gillin, comes when applied to a business objective. While the tools themselves are easy to use, "what's hard is using the tools in a way that achieves your business objective -- whether it's growing brand awareness, generating leads, improving customer service -- these are big, difficult issues because they involve coordinating often many different channels," and sophisticated back-end tracking.
"The biggest question we get around social media is ROI and it's tricky. You have to have very good analytics to see if your social media efforts are paying any dividends,'' he said. "So it's hard to use tools well to achieve a good business outcome."
The challenge in selling social media professional services boils down to the audience, Morris said. For traditional "old media" companies, these services are a very difficult sell, while for more progressive "new media" companies, they fit into plans customers already have, he said. "It's tough to change a decision maker's mind about whether social media is a capable business tool, but if they already believe it is, then convincing them to take a professional approach to social media is much easier."