More and more companies are evolving into social businesses, developing beyond a presence on social platforms to strategic engagement that supports business goals, fosters brand affinity and generates co-created value, according to a new study on social media trends from FedEx and Ketchum.

The study also discovered an obstacle to progress: social media tools have radically transformed the way people engage with the world around them, yet many of the corporations studied that cater to and employ these individuals appear to have been slower to find ways to effectively connect in these channels.

“The rise of social media is both the biggest business communications challenge and opportunity in decades,” says Bill Margaritis, senior vice president of global communications and investor relations at FedEx. “Younger audiences in particular expect to interact with businesses this way; businesses building for the long-term will benefit by learning from our findings.”

The findings suggest that business executives believe they have a strong framework in place for supporting the needs of customers and the general public online, and they are most effectively using social media to enhance brand reputation and awareness, provide customer service and strengthen relationships across key stakeholders.

The research further suggests that these companies believe they are particularly effective at strengthening relationships among customers (51 percent), the general public (52 percent) and partners and suppliers (40 percent). With effective strategies in place for these stakeholders, companies are turning their attention to improved engagement with employees, via both external social tools and improved social functionality of internal platforms such as company intranets.

“Companies today recognize that employees are often their most passionate, credible and impactful brand ambassadors, both internally and externally, and are designing communications strategies that reflect that reality,” says Tyler Durham, partner and managing director of Ketchum Pleon Change. “The 2012 study revealed significant movement among those analyzed in the area of internal social connections on two fronts: internal engagement between the company and its employees, and empowerment of employees to represent the brand externally.

“Both approaches support the move toward true social business and will ultimately foster real business results in terms of employee retention, engagement and productivity.”

Participants are increasingly encouraging employees to own social media efforts and act as confident and active ambassadors for the organization. In fact, 85 percent of the companies who use social media to engage employees reported that employee participation in their organization’s social business efforts increased over the past 12 months.

These companies believe they are effectively using these strategies with employees in the social space to:
• Strengthen relationships (46 percent)
• Share and tap into expertise (44 percent)
• Foster collaboration, dialogue and discussion (44 percent)
• Increase participation in a program or an initiative (38 percent)

While there was extensive discussion in 2010 around development and enforcement of employee social media policies that might limit employee interactions with these tools, many of these companies appear to have become more comfortable by 2012 in educating and empowering employees and customers to operate as brand ambassadors capable of managing the social conversation with the support of social media policies and guidelines.

Social business also is driving organizations to become more adaptive to marketplace needs as they use social tools to listen to their stakeholders and respond by providing them with the content they want to receive in the channels they want to receive it in. Organizations are also adapting products and services to fit stakeholders’ preferences and co-create value.

One thing that hasn’t changed since the 2010 study is the challenge presented in the area of measurement. A majority of the companies (80 percent) conduct some type of social media measurement, but many also admit to challenges, particularly where external audiences are concerned.

In looking for ways to address measurement, 84 percent of the companies that measure social media focus on engagement, while 69 percent track impressions, 53 percent analyze influence and 51 percent assess tone. Some companies even report developing social scorecards in the years since the last study, attempting to directly track the financial impact of social media efforts. And 84 percent of survey participants agree there will always be some aspects of marketing that cannot be measured, but are important nevertheless.