There have been many attempts over the last year to define what a social business is. IBM, Salesforce.com and many other enterprise software companies are spending a significant amount of money on advertising and marketing, trying to educate business owners of the benefits and values a social business offers. Yet for all their efforts, I still find that I need to do a significant amount of education when I speak to my clients and prospects about what a social business is and how re-engineering their business as a social business will generate significant value.

Perhaps the best way to understand what a social business is and how it can deliver real business benefits is to examine the three levels of social business: internal, external and public:

Internal Social is usually referred to as enterprise social, enterprise collaboration or social collaboration. The concept behind this is that companies use social technologies and processes to enhance the collaboration and knowledge sharing within their organization and amongst their employees. Enterprise Social Networks (ESN’s) are created and deployed to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and ideas within an organization. There are seven value propositions of an enterprise social network and each of them delivers real value to any organization. The concept of internal social or enterprise collaboration is not new, in the past it has been referred to as knowledge management. What is new however is the technology and the processes you can build around it that enables seamless collaboration amongst all employees and the ability to transfer tacit knowledge within an organization.

Companies that derive the greatest immediate value from investing in an internal social project are companies that have large global footprints or those that have recently been part of a merger or an acquisition. These types of companies desperately need internal social technologies and processes in order to get everyone on the same page and aligned with the company’s overall mission and objectives. Professionals at these types of companies also need the ability to locate expertise across the organization in order to increase efficiency, streamline operations and eliminate redundancies.

Law firms and other professional services companies, in which the exchange of knowledge is their single biggest asset, also can benefit greatly by deploying enterprise social networks to facilitate the flow of knowledge across their firm. Law firm associates especially would benefit greatly from a collaborative platform that lets them understand the larger context of what they are working on as well as to provide them with access to experts and best practices within their firm.

There are many companies that provide internal social technologies including Jive Software, IBM Connections, Salesforce.com Chatter, Microsoft Yammer, Tibbr and Telligent amongst them. However, the biggest challenge most companies have in implementing and deploying internal social initiatives is the cultural challenge. Adoption is key and in order for employees to adopt new technologies, they have to understand how the new technologies will make their work lives easier and more productive. This requires a high degree of training and change management processes. Training on how the tools work is not sufficient. Employees need to be educated on why they should use social technologies and how these technologies will benefit them.

External Social is frequently mistaken for public social or social media marketing. The intended audience however is different. External social technologies and processes enables companies to work closer with their partners and customers. As is the case with internal social, external social enables a company to collaborate and share their knowledge with partners and customers. External social technologies exist in many forms, they can be private groups or communities that are a part of an enterprise social network or stand alone communities and micro-sites created for the specific purpose of collaborating and sharing knowledge.

In some instances, these communities are set up by companies but are primarily used by customers. Examples of this are Intuit’s Community which helps Intuit customers and small business owners connect with each other; HDTalking by Harley Davidson which lets Harley enthusiasts and industry experts discuss topics of interest and answer questions; and IKEAFANS for Ikea customers to trade ideas and tips on Ikea products and services.

Other companies have set up customer service communities to handle inquiries and problems their customers might be experiencing. Vanessa DiMauro and her team at Leader Networks has assembled an impressive list of the top 71 customer service communities. Here too, there are vast amounts of tools and platforms that enable a company to build a customer community. Some of the leading vendors in this space include Joomla, Drupal, Get Satisfaction, Lithium and Jive.

They key to the success of these external social communities and groups is to make sure your focus is aligned with your customers and partners. These are not sites to promote your products and services. Rather they are there to enable the free exchange of information and knowledge amongst your customers and partners.

Public Social otherwise known as social media marketing is the most commonly known level of a social business. When most people talk about social, they are usually referring to the use of social technologies for sales and marketing purposes. This is where the large public social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and Google+ come in as well as some of the other emerging or niche networks such as Instagram, Pinterest and Vine.

Although public social is the most well-known level of social business, it does not mean that every company understands what it is or what they should be doing. Companies will often rely on an advertising or PR agency to provide them with guidance but this is usually not the best approach since most agencies don’t really get social business. Alternatively, companies hire experts or consultants to help them with the strategy and execution of their social media marketing campaign with mixed results. That is why it is important to figure carefully consider what you are looking for when hiring for social media.

Social media marketing is not just another channel for promotion and advertising. Social networks and technologies give company’s the ability to connect with their prospects and customers in a unique way. These types of connections must provide value to each party in order to build a sense of trust. This trust can lead to advocacy and loyalty wich can be a deeply rewarding and profitable for companies. It all begins with listening to what the market wants and then learning and engaging with your prospects and customers. There are the five tenets of social media marketing: listen, learn, engage, measure and adapt.

Now that we have explored and explained what the different levels of a social business are there is one very important thing left to understand. In order for a social business to be truly successful, ALL THREE levels of social business must be in use. This is where the biggest value can be gained. The reason is that if all three levels are being properly used, then they all feed each other and work together. A company can use public social to locate new opportunities or find out about problems or issues and then take that information and socialize it internally and be able to respond accordingly.

At the same time, a company may be working on a new product or service and they can use external social to test it with their customers and partners before rolling it out to the public at large. There are tremendous benefits that can be gained by deploying and using all three levels of a social business. The flow of knowledge, information and ideas amongst all constituents makes for a very powerful organization. Companies don;t have to do them all at once, they can start with one and then move on to the others, as long as they keep the larger picture in mind and build the flexibility to adapt.

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