“Social Business” Is Bullshit

by · September 11, 201243 comments

Last night at Expion’s Racing Ahead Social Business Summit I offered up an idea that wrinkled a few noses. My assertion was that “social business” was a bullshit term. Keep in mind, I was on stage in front of a room of brands, many of whose social marketing leads have the term “social business” in their title; agencies that have entire sales pitches on how they can help you become a “social business;” and consultants who sell “social business” strategy like Geiko sells car insurance.

Momma told me to be good. She’s been wrong before. Heh.

But here’s a more full explanation. I do think “social business” is a bullshit term. It’s a phrase someone coined so they could charge a higher hourly rate for their services. I don’t know who first began using it but they have an entire generation of marketing practitioners something to sell that sounds neat, important and complex. Instead of charging $100 an hour or $150 an hour for social media marketing, we can say, “I’m a social business strategist,” and that’s worth $250 or $300 an hour. If you’ve worked with big brands or a reputable research firm (enough so that you’re title was or is “analyst”) you can go from $500 or so to over $1000 an hour by saying you do “social business” rather than whatever it is you really sell.

A Bull - No BullshitYes, the proof is in the pudding and those who sell it but don’t deliver won’t take advantage of the rate hike for long. Those who follow through on the promise — whatever the promise of “social business” might be — will be worth the investment. And yes, I believe many people selling social business to be worth their respective fees. Several of them were in the audience last night.

But what “social business” really is, is the digital-first world’s version of change management. “Social business” implies you’re evolving as a company or enterprise to be inclusive of all stakeholders, tearing down silos to foster better communication and collaboration internally, empowering your external audiences to participate in your brand/company/marketing and the like. You’re changing. From old guard to new. You’re transitioning from the way marketing and communications did work, to the way it works better now.

But my marketing brethren can’t call what they do “change management.” That term surfaced in the mid- to late-1980s as human resource consultants discovered a new term to help them charge more per hour. So “change management” is known. It’s defined. It’s not sexy. But “social business” … now that SINGS!

To be clear, I don’t think the concepts behind social business are bullshit. Just that we’re calling it something silly because it sounds sexier than what the name really ought to be. I’m not implying that those sporting their “social business” wares are con-artists or snake-oil salesmen, though I’m sure some will overreact to the headline or implications here and accuse me of such.

At the end of the day, though, we ought to be honest with the brands we work with. The term “social business” is like a Pearl Jam song: It sounds awesome, but no one knows what the hell it means. Maybe the social-business-is-change-management definition will help more of them sell more of it.

Your thoughts? The comments are yours.

Note: Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • Gabriel Gheorghiu

    shouldn’t a real social business use social concepts and ideas all across the company (or business), both internally and externally? in that case, how come only marketing and sales are talking about it? 

    when’s the last time you hear a warehouse manager saying that (s)he’s social? or the CFO? not to mention the field service people. a business can only be considered social when most of its people, partners. customers, etc will be part of it

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Well said, Gabriel. Agree with you that the “social business” movement is more about integrating this social behavior throughout the organization. But that’s why I contend that all this hoopla is about change management. That’s what we’re really talking about … helping the entire organization shift to adjust to changes in the technology and consumer behavior. Fair?

    • http://www.internet-bard.com KatFrench

      Gabriel – For what it’s worth, I used to do work for a large government organization, and the person doing their social media work? Was their warehouse manager. It was a “she volunteered and had the available time to deal with it” situation, and it ended up working out beautifully for both the government agency and the employee.  

      But on your larger point, I agree that social concepts and tools stay far too stuck in silos where they don’t have the best opportunity to be transformative for the whole organization. 

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  • http://www.oceanmediallc.com/ Bryan Howland

    “Social business” sounds so nice and means so little. Instead of focusing on becoming a social business, companies would be better served by integrating social media tools into whatever makes the most sense for their objectives – customer service, branding, leads, etc. I’ve seen so many organizations attempt to be social just for the sake of being social – and it almost always fails – which in turn results in a more negative perception of social media’s effectiveness. 

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Well said, Bryan. Thanks for that perspective.

  • http://twitter.com/JoePinon Joe Pinon

    I feel like you had an pre-meditated agenda there Jason, by saying “Social Business is Bullshit!”. The fact you say you aren’t questioning its practice, but rather the use of the term itself, is like asserting “Capitalism is bullshit!” in front of a room full of Entrepreneurs and then after everyone looks at you with scathing eyes, you wave your arms in the air and say, “No! No! C’mon on folks! I meant the term!…It should be called Profit Management.”  

    You took what most people thought you were questioning, which is the practice itself, and then spun it to a silly and irrelevant indictment on the term instead.  I’m sure the shock and awe approach woke up the audience initially, inciting strong emotional reactions. Ironically what “social business” is all about.  Businesses that get people to engage with their brands on social media platforms.  However, it failed to deliver at the end.  Which is exactly what a “social business” should avoid.  Something that Bryan Howland eludes to in his comment, “I’ve seen so many organizations attempt to be social just for the sake of being social – and it almost always fails…” In this case, it was an attempt to be controversial by pulling out a rubber knife at a gun fight.  Most would not waste their time arguing the general use of the term, “social business”.

    Regardless, I thought it was humorous and took guts to say.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Fair feedback, Joe. Thanks for that. I don’t know that I fully agree with you. I never claimed social business to be bullshit (I used quotes in the headline … more to save space, not to mislead anyone), only the term. So I don’t know that there was any bait and switch here.

      And what I’m trying to do with both the talk and the post is not the same as what a brand tries to do with their social content. My purpose here and there is to instigate discussion … it’s a thought leadership effort. Their goals (in most cases) are going to be increasing brand awareness, driving sales, etc., etc. So there’s a little apples-to-oranges comparison going on.

      But again … fair feedback. I appreciate the perspective.

      • http://twitter.com/TylerHakes Tyler Hakes

         I don’t think this was necessarily bait and switch in such an extreme sense. But, we all recognize the value in creating a provocative headline for your blog post.

        In reality, it’s the same reason that people use phrases like “social business”. It’s about creating impact, drama, and perceived value. If your headline had read something as forthcoming as “The Term ‘Social Business’ is Kind Of Vague”, then no one would have really bothered to read it. You gave them no reason to. You didn’t imply any additional value beneath the headline (or, label, as it may be).

        The same thing can be said of the “social business” service providers. Using a quasi-mysterious term that generally describes your service, without “pulling back the curtain”, so to speak, creates a sense of value in what your provide and in the knowledge that you possess.

        Now, I certainly agree that all should be fair and forthcoming in the explanation of services. But, sexing up the name a bit isn’t any different than your choice of headline.

        • http://twitter.com/JoePinon Joe Pinon

          I agree with your overall point.  Jason certainly deserves credit for being savvy.

      • http://twitter.com/JoePinon Joe Pinon

        I appreciate the reply, Jason.  Looking forward to reading more from you.  Thanks! 

  • http://thenewsocial.tumblr.com Eric S. Arcidiacono

    sounds like you believe in what “social business” means but just are resisting a new term that actualy does have meaning.  kind of weird, because you sound like you know what you’re talking about.  usually resisting new words or terms is something closed minded people resistant to change do…but you don’t seem like the type, so i’m confused.  i think anything that can help refine what we mean when we utter a phrase is a good thing.  if someone said “i manage change” does that really encapsulate what they do if they do have an advanced set of knowledge about how to make your business social?

    sounds like your title is bullshit, mostly because you just wanted to cause a stir by having a controversial topic and title.  i’ll say it for you:  touche!

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      I love this movement to pick on bloggers because they write attention-grabbing headlines. Heh.

      Seriously, though Eric – I appreciate your perspective here, but certainly don’t agree with your premise. My whole vibe since I first started this blog was the cut through the clutter, labels and sometimes B.S. to give businesses a no-nonsense take on the world of social. Practical, applicable, real … that’s what I hope to distill out of the issues of the day to be useful for folks. So this was simply an effort to help explain the term “social business” which is so vague in the world’s understanding of it that the opening talk at Expion’s Social Business Summit this week included a discussion of what the term means … and the people there were supposed to be “it-getters.”

      I don’t think “social business” helps refines what it is. It is change management. People understand that term because it’s been around a while. I was simply trying to help them make that leap to understanding that “social business” isn’t something new and mysterious. It’s change management in the digital era.

      And while yes, a crafty headline can cause a stir and get people’s attention, so can offering a snarky, I-know-better comment in reply. Touche, indeed. ;-)

      • http://twitter.com/ericinstereo Eric S. Arcidiacono

        Hey Jason, thanks for the reply.  Somewhere in there we agree on some things, I think…and not really “picking on” anyone, especially since I have no power in the situation.  I just feel like there’s a lot of sensationalism around us these days.  Not trying to be a fun killer here…just hoping for fewer sensational headlines.  Although, you did manage to get me to read your post, and write two comments.  Ha!  Good to see you have a good attitude about my “bullying”, though.  :-)

  • http://twitter.com/itsRobynwithay Robyn Davis Sekula

    Am I the only one who read this and thought, “Hey! I’m going to call myself a social business strategist and raise my rates!” Good perspective, Jason. 

  • Chris Parente

    Good post Jason. When I talk to clients I call these “angry man” posts — using a provocative headline to cut through the clutter. Personally I think it was not bait and switch, you did explain what you meant. I broadly agree, since I see the challenge as more cultural than technical with clients. They need to think like publishers, think conversation not broadcast.

    It’s not easy. But if it was, they wouldn’t need agencies would they! 

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      True, Chris! And thank you!

  • http://www.techguerilla.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

    “Cars” are bullshit.  We already have these things called horses and people already understand the word “transportation” and what it means so why wrap it in some newfangled term?  

    On a more serious note, we agree with each other for the most part, but I think you miss the mark a bit when limiting ‘social business’ to ‘change management’.  Change management is incredibly critical, and it’s by far one of the most prominent aspects that needs focus if you are one of the people responsible for making social business happen. But it’s the process of reaching a goal not the goal itself.  Social business is a goal.  It would be like saying that that new wing of your house is called a hammer.  

    There is no doubt that it’s an incredibly nuanced term, and confusion is all over the map.  Anything that helps to clarify that in peoples minds is useful to me so I’m not that averse to ‘change management’ since it at least eliminates all of the folks who for some reason think social business = social media.  That said, I’d probably argue that most people don’t truly understand ‘change management’ either.  At least half of the work we do at SideraWorks has no involvement with digital aspects whatsoever so I’m not sure I can even agree with ‘change management for digital’.

    It’s ok for things to be complex.  It’s ok for things to be difficult to describe.  But that fact has nothing to do with the validity of it.  Describing a color is also pretty difficult, but that color still exists.

    Cheers, 

    Matt Ridings - @techguerilla:disqus 

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Fair point, sir. Thanks for the perspective.

  • http://www.keesromkes.nl Kees Romkes

    Thanks, I’ll be calling myself change manager from now on then ;-) Like your article Jason.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Heh. Not sure if that would get you as many clients, but who knows?

  • http://www.cendrinemarrouat.com Cendrine Marrouat

    Excellent article, Jason. I would be tempted to say that the whole thing is a trend in the social media industry. To me, it’s the same as the many people who claim “social media stardom” and cannot even deliver small results.

    The problem, in my humble opinion (and I could be mistaken of course), is that the phrase “social media” is too broad — and as such used and abused. 

    To me, “social business” means absolutely nothing. If you are in business, you are automatically forced to be “social” if you want to succeed. But, of course, I could be mistaken here.Thank you for the article. It’s always a pleasure to read you!

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Good thoughts, Cendrine. I can define social media fairly easily … mediums where multiway interactions govern the communications. But social business is more murky. Still, having these discussions helps us all understand better. Thanks for chiming in.

      • http://www.cendrinemarrouat.com Cendrine Marrouat

        Social media can be easily defined, but most people don’t really know what the phrase stands for. 

        And I agree with you. These discussions help!

  • http://www.secretsushi.com/ Adam Helweh

    “Social” CRM anyone?

  • http://thecontrapuntist.com contrapuntist

    An interesting post.  But I think this post is stuck with how marketers label and describe new shiny objects. Change is constantly happening and we are forced to come up with new names to help differentiate between different or new processes. Today, the iPhone 5 was announced, and for the most part it’s still the iPhone, but with some upgrades. The label of version 5 is important to help people differentiate between the new versus the older ones.In the end it’s still an Apple product.  

    Anyone could honestly pick any new catch phrase…oh like “content marketing”…and call it bullshit. It’s like brands haven’t been developing content over the past few decades? Seriously? Granted, the manner and purpose of the content has changed, and now we have a new catch phrase to match. So the notion that a new phrase to label a different way of thinking as bullshit is absurd and extreme.  

    One final example, the labeling of rock music. At one point, all rebellious music was dubbed as rock, but rock evolved into an assortment of flavors. Now, we have hard rock, soft rock, thrash, progressive rock, alternative,..blah blah blah.  But the reason we have these labels is for one simple reason, try putting Metallica, Bon Jovi, Heart, Gojira, Opeth and Linkin Park into the same bucket. Sure, its all some form of rock music, but the labels are necessary to help put all these acts into context as a result of the music they produce.  

    The same is true for social business. It’s a new bucket, a new label and description, to help executives differentiate between older and newer ways of thinking.  

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Good thoughts here! Thank you!

  • http://buzzshift.com/ Meagan Dahl

    I agree with the comments here that the term “social media” is far to broad and buzz-wordy to be categorized this way, along the same lines as “social business”. As the networked space and connections online and off expands, there is will become fewer and fewer separations between social and traditional business models. As brand marketers and strategists, it is our job isolate each brand-owned channel and isolate and improve the model attributed. There will always be a new tool, app, platform, catchphrase, what-have-you, but the heart of what we do is create conversations, communities, and conversions. 

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks for the thought, Meagan. Good stuff.

  • http://twitter.com/JoePinon Joe Pinon

    Jason – I’ve been checking in to read some of the reactions to your post and it seems that you must be on to something about the term “social business” being somewhat controversial.  I was so focused on the whole bait n switch thing, as I never thought there was a story here to begin with.  I guess I was wrong.  It never dawned on me that this could somehow be a real topic, but apparently you were right on with bringing it up.  At least according to some of these comments.  

    Let me offer a definition for each term, so we understand the context.  

    Change Management: A strategic business plan and practice that anticipates and adapts to the ever changing market place in all aspects of a business model. ie. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__IlYNMdV9E

    Social Business: A strategic business plan and practice, that effectively uses social media to attract and engage with its customers, clients and consumers for the purpose of building brand loyalty and long term sales. ie. Coca-Cola: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45Z-GevoYB8

    Very slyly you suggest that “Social Business” IMPLIES “Change Management”.  Well thats because it is a form of change management after all.  A “social business” is a business that has adapted with the times.  You were right to connect the two.  But what it’s not, is a bullshit term.  It correctly conjures the image of a business literally being social.  

    If the concept is still too murky, let me put it this way:

    What did the Change Management Strategist say to the Social Business Strategist?

    “I have a job for you.”

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Nice points, Joe. And I’m glad you reconsidered that I wasn’t just being a link-baiter. Heh.

  • http://www.engag.io/Abdallah Abdallah Al-Hakim

    Interesting article Jason and I like the title. I do not understand the fuss of some of the readers against the title? Since when was having an attention grabbing title to stimulate discussion a bad thing!! 

    I do believe in social business but in my humble opinion, it is still in its early days mainly because companies/brands need to still determine how they fit in the social web which is a people’s domain. You might be interested in a terrific article written by Arnold Waldstein http://arnoldwaldstein.com/blog that discusses social web and marketing. 

  • peoplesshaman

    Apropos of the great conversation we have been having on LinkedIn regarding ‘Asocial Media’

  • http://about.me/greg2dot0 Greg Lowe (@Greg2dot0)

    I still think it’s just called “business”, but as you suggest, it lacks “sexy”. The fact that the industry has yet to find a term that has stuck has hurt everyone. This is the because most business people don’t really give a shit about what it’s called but since every vendor and pundit wants to be the one who comes up with the the name, you have:

    Social Listening
    Social Media Monitoring
    Enterprise Social Networking (ESN)
    sCRM
    Enterprise 2.0
    Social Business

    This is what happens when you give everyone a voice. Perhaps the challenge is that we’re trying to paint too broad a brush. There are 3 distinct components of ##### 

    Monitoring/Listening – Social Media Monitoring
    Engaging external audiences – (Social Customer Relationship Management, Social Recruiting, Social Supply Chain, etc)
    Engaging internal audiences – Change Management+

    If we contrast this to other solutions inside of companies you have:

    ERP – Enterprise Resource Planning
    CRM – Customer Relationship Management
    eCommerce (or ecomm) – Websites selling product

    All of these terms are well understood by the average business user. They may not know the details, but have a sense about what ERP does for a company. The other aspect of this is that people and people inside of companies like acronyms.
     
    We are so busy being disruptive in this space that most vendors and self-proclaimed “experts” don’t even have a clue what it’s like to market to them. If we did, then perhaps we’d call it:

    BBN – Better Business Now!

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  • Marty Thompson

    Jason,
    A very provocative post. What I think would be useful is to ride this social business horse for a while, and you can do that by focusing much of the upcoming event in Orange County on the precepts, challenges, small victories, and rapidly changing notion of what social business looks like when done well. It isn’t one hundred percent technology, and it isn’t one hundred percent process, nor all “being social” as an organization.
    What seemed like ages ago, social media technologies broke on to the scene, and caught corporate America with it’s pants down. It responded slowly, reactively, but eventually came around, and began to use social channels as just another tool set. Has corporate America changed as a result of not controlling the conversations out there? Absolutely. Did the technology force an epiphany of trying to be more helpful, more thoughtful, and more responsive? I would like to think so. Just the impact of social media alone has changed how businesses go about making a buck or two. Marketing as a discipline has changed (at least a bit) forever just due to it. But the technology also has forced most companies to rethink so much, from the boardroom to the bathroom. Now we have a whole new lexicon, and it is as colorful as ever. Social marketing (I prefer marketing), Social CRM (the pendulum is swinging back to CRM), Enterprise 2.0, with a social collaboration chaser, etc, etc. The big boys are going full tilt with the social business mantra for now, IBM, SAP, Oracle, Salesforce, et al. They are looking at the current, very complex mix of interdependent business processes they mediate, and building around social, both as a technology, and as a collaborative phenomena, to accrue better outcomes, improved ROI (finally, at the process level?), etc. It is exciting to see you and others calling it out, we need healthy dialog that will continue to make us all retain a critical eye. As someone who has gone from SAP consultant, to product marketing, to marketing, and now,…….drumroll…..social business strategist, trust me, I take no offense.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks Marty! Great points.

  • Dbcooper27

    Mmm. It’s no more a bullshit term than the social media bandwagon. Make sure your money while the it lasts

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