Social media has many applications for a business or organization. From complex social networks or online communities connecting factions of a brand’s audience to relatively simple corporate blogs, the environment and tools before us enable businesses, large and small, to connect with consumers in compelling ways not seen before.

We talk a good deal about individual tools, platforms and applications on SocialMediaExplorer.com. We also discuss strategies and tactics to engage audiences. But what about the enterprise? Who is there to serve the large corporations, brands and communities?

Robin Hooper\'s company, Awareness, specializes in enterprise social media solutions.Robin Hopper is the Vice President for Business Development at Awareness, an enterprise social media firm that bills itself as the leader in the category. They offer services that provide community facilitation platforms for internal and external audiences, independent of one another or in various states of blend as well. What that means is, they build branded communities using web 2.0 tools and offer a white label solution for branded social networks. More on Awareness below.

We talked to Hopper recently to find out more about social media for the enterprise.

Enterprise social media can be interpreted a couple of different ways – strategic and tactic implications define one path, technical execution another. Do you find customers are capable in one or both areas and just don’t understand the marriage of the two, or that there’s a sufficient lack of understanding in one or both?

While we have seen an increase in the number of customers that are capable in both recently, this is still a new market with a lot of buzz so customers more often come to us knowing they need to do something with social media but not necessarily what or why. Forced to choose I’d say the majority are still in the technical execution camp because they are more likely able to articulate their need in terms of “a blog,” “a wiki,” or “needing to run a video contest” at this point

Companies wishing to explore enterprise social media solutions probably ask the question, “How does this integrate or work with my current website?” Answer that question for the executives out there reading this who are curious

We see broad integration of a social media solution with existing web properties as a key ingredient to success. One of the biggest benefits of enabling social media/community is that your members will inevitably create content gems that you will want to make available to an audience beyond the community members and such our platform provides variety of ways to integrate – these include

  • Branded site: the Awareness platform can be branded to look exactly like existing properties so the fact that visitors are unaware that they are navigating between your website and your social media community.
  • iFrame – Awareness can also be presented as an iframe in your existing website.
  • Participation Widgets – all of Awareness participation points are available as widgets that can be easily added to any web existing website. This allows you to add web2.0-style interactivity (voting, rating, commenting, submit a story, photo, video, create a profile, etc.) to any web property and/or encourage participation in your community from anywhere.
  • Content Aggregation Widgets – all of the content provided in your Awareness platform is also available as widgets that can be easily added to any existing website. This allows you to augment your web properties with the best user generated content on any topic. For example you can augment the product page of your website with customer reviews of that product or you can display the photos submitted by customers who attended an event on the event page of your main website.
  • RSS – The Awareness platform RSS’s the heck out of everything… Every content category or tag has it’s own RSS feed making it very easy to syndicate content from any topic in your community to other web properties.
  • Web parts for SharePoint – in addition to widgets, Awareness participation points and aggregations are also available as web parts for SharePoint allowing SharePoint customers to easily integrate them into their SharePoint powered portals.
  • Awareness API – there is also a full API allowing the more technically savvy to incorporate any element of Awareness into any website.

Do you find that customers are generally focused on a certain tool or set of tools they want without regard to a strategic purpose? How do you walk them back to the discovery phase to ensure the end result is really what they need

We do. As I mentioned earlier customers are still articulating there need in terms of a tool or tactic – “we want a company blog”, “we want a discussion board,” etc., rather than talking in terms of the constituents they are trying to serve or the business problems they are trying to solve. While we can certainly deploy our platform tactically for any of those, a key part of our sales cycle is to step back and work with the client to understand their objectives, to try and draw out business problems they are experiencing that could be solved and to understand how they might measure success

Speaking of the discovery phase, are there certain tools you are finding that customers wind up needing more frequently or urgently than others

While successful communities are dependent on broad participation it would be way too much to ask of members to jump in right away and create a full profile, start a blog, or edit a wiki. Instead, customers need to think about how they can start members down a path to broader and broader participation converting them from a lurker or consumer of content to a more engaged community member. To achieve this we’ve found that customers in almost all cases need to incorporate “softer” participation points like voting/rating, commenting, and discussions to start members down that path

Classically trained marketers probably react to open conversation on their own website the way toddlers do to Brussell’s Sprouts. How do you answer the anxiety companies have about opening their virtual doors to free-flow of conversation

“You can’t leave the dinner table until you try everything on your social media plate,” doesn’t seem to cut it so we end up but we do end up talking about a walk before you run approach. Basically our application gives marketers a brake and a gas pedal so we talk about how they can introduce conversation to their websites by easing their foot off the brake rather than stepping on the gas. Extensive work flow, moderation and word filter features let them introduce conversation without the worry, giving them ample opportunity to ensure content is appropriate. It doesn’t take long for them to see the types of conversation that take place are not ones that they should fear so they usually move pretty quickly to relax the moderation features and start to step on the gas by introducing other participation points to their sites and/or address other applications through social media

If a company or brand wants to open a conversation portal on their website (a forum, message board, etc.), what are the advantages of using an enterprise social media firm like Awareness as opposed to their internal technology teams building them from the free tools available out there

All the typical build vs. buy questions apply – do you want your staff devoting the time to develop and maintain a social media solution? Can you devote the staff to support? Can your team devote the time to the ongoing enhancements and feature requests? That said there are a number of low cost/no cost point products and tools that can be a good way to test the social media waters with a pilot project

Once a pilot, or even a few pilots, starts to gain momentum however a broader integrated platform becomes almost a necessity otherwise you have to deal with piecing together like content in different blog, wiki and discussion platforms; trying to consolidate member login and profiles in different systems, etc

A platform approach such as ours is all encompassing – blogs, wikis, discussion forums, social networking, video/photo sharing, social bookmarking, etc. – are all included allowing you to pick and chose which to deploy to best meet the needs of your community not just at launch but as it matures. With Awareness, we actually treat all of these different social media ingredients as the same thing, i.e., it’s all just content to our platform with different attributes applied

I would imagine employee training is an imperative in the success of either an internal or external platform. What challenges have you faced or are you seeing in preparing clients to use Web 2.0 technologies

Actually, if we’ve done our job right, training is almost a non-event. By that I mean we focus on understanding the members of the community the customer is intending to serve – how technical they are, the tools they use today, the information they need to share, etc. The Awareness platform provides a broad range of participation options that include email, fill in the blank form submissions, comments, discussions, blogs, wikis, etc. so once we understand the community members, we map the participation methods that best fit to try and create a frictionless participation environment

To illustrate, one of our clients is a 100-year-old financial services company that wanted to turn on a social media community that would allow their field sales to collaborate, share best practices, etc. This group was not that technically savvy and was using email distribution lists to share information. Rather than introduce a whole new way of sharing information, we turned on an Awareness community that really leveraged our email-authoring feature out of the gate. By using the feature, community members could continue to share the information in the way they always had, the only difference is that our platform intercepted the email, formatted it and published it to the new community. Now members had a way to consume the information that was easier than sifting through email so they were naturally drawn there where they discovered that they could vote, discuss, and even contribute right from the community itself. Over time the number of content submissions initiated by email dwindled as members migrated to the new community but that was able to be a natural occurrence with zero training rather than demanding a cultural shift from the members

In general terms, how does the enterprise cost model work? (i.e. – How much is a company in for to build out a community platform? What about maintenance and service beyond build?

Awareness is primarily offered as a hosted solution. The annual subscription is $48K and includes the use of the software, hosting, maintenance, and support for unlimited users. One time costs for implementation services are dependent on the role clients want us to take vs. their agency or their own team

And what kind of time frames can enterprise customers generally expect, say with a fully functional, working internal communications platform

Depending on the complexity of the design, customers can be up in running with a fully functioning platform in 2 – 8 weeks

Are there environmental prerequisites you would want before working with a client (customer base, employee population, management understanding of the social web, etc.)? What are the ideals

While Awareness customers are from a variety of industries – travel, hospitality, financial, technology, media, retail, etc. – they are typically looking to broadly adopt Web 2.0 to solve business issues. So the platform is best suited for companies who are trying to leverage social media to engage a large number of participant communities of interest in and outside their organization

Hopper is the founder of iUpload, which became Awareness Networks. He has an extensive background in the professional services and management and document management industry. He also has extensive experience in the startup world. He blogs at hopper.awarenessnetworks.com

Awareness was launched in 2005 and is headquartered in Waltham, Mass. It is one of several reputable enterprise social media firms on the market. Others include Mzinga and Jive. Jeremiah Owyang also maintains a list of white label social networking platforms on his blog found here.

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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 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?

  • http://ooyes.net website design

    As more sites grow to incorporate social media I think hearing about how the enterprise is adopting it is interesting. Over the next year or so I think this overcrowded space is really going to get sorted out.

  • Heidi Sullivan

    I love the idea of starting out with “softer” participation. Too many companies want to dive right in the deep end and aren’t ready to post frequently and write conversationally. Thanks for the interview!

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  • http://www.greaterthanmedia.com Cameron

    I liked the car analogy too, “…our application gives marketers a brake and a gas pedal so we talk about how they can introduce conversation to their websites by easing their foot off the brake rather than stepping on the gas.”

    I’d add another car analogy in that companies should start by simply opening the car door to let some people in. If the company can create a pine-fresh scent that feels authentic, open and transparent (rather than corporately polished), the conversation will develop into something productive. The participants will then invite friends and your car might need to become a bus.

    If the car door is opened and the vehicle reeks of scripted response or feels like a black hole where no one is heard, everyone will get out on the next block.