Social media use is spreading across a wide range of industries. As Twitter, Facebook and the like take hold outside of the marketing department, companies are facing a number of challenges, especially when it comes to managing risk and regulatory compliance. A close look at these challenges uncovers business opportunities that can be addressed by value-added resellers (VARs), solution providers and other IT channel firms.
"Social media has been a hard thing for companies to wrap their head around, and I think by forcing some of these discussions, it can help companies maybe place it where it belongs. The more we do the work to define the issues around it, the more it might help to define the opportunities for channel firms in the future," said Seth Robinson, director for technology analysis at CompTIA, a vendor-neutral IT training and certification provider.
"We're starting to see a lot of different industries adopt social and utilize it to further their business objectives. Financial services are in the vanguard as far as social media-specific guidelines and rules," said Norvin Leong, director of product marketing for Actiance, a Redwood City, California-based provider of communication, collaboration and social media governance solutions.
The problem is not Facebook. The problem is that people talk to each other. We used to do it around a campfire. Now we do it on Facebook or Twitter.
research vice president, Gartner
"There are very specific regulations about what brokers and advisors can send out in advertising materials to new clients and customers, and social media is a popular vehicle to reach new clients. There are specific rules around what they can and can't say, do and not do to look for new customers. That's where you start to see social media and regulations colliding," Leong said. Other industries, like pharmaceuticals and health care, are looking to the financial services vertical for cues on how to develop their own social media guidelines, he said.
This presents an opportunity for channel companies, particularly those specializing in specific verticals. "A channel firm has the opportunity to say, 'Given the vertical you're in, here's what you might want to consider doing with your social media based on regulations that might come down the pipe,'" Robinson said.
"Sometimes customers need help understanding the different regulations they may be subject to. We have customers that might need training if entering a new market, say, overseas. What are the applicable government regulations they need to be wary of if they are entering the European market?" Leong said.
In addition to offering guidance on specific requirements and social media compliance policies, channel companies can partner with a vendor like Actiance or HootSuite, which offer software to help monitor and manage social media feeds. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Experts say regulatory compliance and communications risk need to be addressed at a much deeper level.
"There are so many ways to communicate these days, but in the eyes of the court system, they don't care about the channel. They just care about the content. A judge will look at an email, LinkedIn recommendations, Tweets -- [these are] all forms of communication that are treated the same. Companies have to capture and record all of this stuff, regardless of what channel they're using," Leong said.
To manage risk and create social media compliance policies, companies -- and their channel partners -- need to get past the communication channels people are using. "The problem is not Facebook. The problem is that people talk to each other. We used to do it around a campfire. Now we do it on Facebook or Twitter," explained Andrew Walls, research vice president for analyst firm Gartner. "Communication is one thing; the technology employed is a separate concern. The big risk to our organizations is that they conflate the two aspects, and they try to treat social media communication as something separate from all other communication, and that simply doesn't work."
Walls said it's a tipoff when companies have a security policy for each communication channel their employees use. "What that tells you is those policies have subtly different sets of rules based on the technology used. That never works. People can't remember the rules," Walls said. "When they want to send a private message via Twitter, is that [instant messaging]? Email? They're saying, 'What's the proper rule set? Aw, to hell with it.'"
IT channel companies have an opportunity to help their clients take a step back and look at the bigger picture. "That's a discussion of communications risk management, which is a whole separate beast from social media, and that's the issue companies are not grappling with," Walls said. "They are confusing the technology from the behavior."
Teaching everyone in a company how to use current social media technologies may be useful in the near term, but next year a whole new raft of social media technologies will come out, Walls explained. If the training is very specific to the social media tool in use, those skills are unlikely to transfer to a new technology. Given how quickly technology changes and the rate at which new communication tools are introduced, it is critical that the skills employees acquire can easily transfer from one channel to another. "When you focus so much on technology, you create bigger and bigger risks, because you create a rigid workforce that can't adapt," Walls said.
Those companies with workforces that can adapt are looking beyond the technology. "Organizations with successful programs are saying, 'Forget about the technology. Let's talk about communications and how we communicate and when is it dangerous, when is it safe, how should we conduct ourselves when communicating with others. Now let's talk about when and where we communicate and the tools we use to do it,'" Walls said.
Greg Mancusi-Ungaro, chief marketing officer at BrandProtect, a Toronto-based vendor offering Internet threat detection services, agreed. "We find that our best-practices clients are always trying to further the knowledge of their employee base in the area of appropriate behavior when communicating outbound and appropriate behavior when responding to outbound communications of any kind."
That's not to say there isn't any need whatsoever for social media-specific education. Mancusi-Ungaro also stressed the need to "educate, educate, educate about basic cyber security practices, as well as the premise that even if you're not using the tool that's used by the company, you are still representing the company and are liable," he said.
Leong pointed out that social media is a new and unfamiliar communications channel for financial advisors in their 40s and 50s. "They might not have the acumen or skill level to effectively use Facebook or LinkedIn like a guy fresh out of a university who grew up with this stuff," he said.
Actiance provides consulting services to help these folks get up to speed on how to effectively use Facebook, for example, or how to create an engaging social media presence that accomplishes marketing goals while remaining within compliance with regulatory requirements. "This is an example of a value-added service on top of our core platform," Leong said.
Crystal Bedell is an award-winning writer specializing in technology.