Cisco Social Media Conference: Teaching elephants to dance

The Ragan Communications Social Media Best Practices for Communicators Conference, hosted by Cisco Systems, wrapped up on Friday. The 3-day event promised to share ways to “engage employees, build strong customer relationships and create brand buzz online” using social media. Workshop and presentation topics included:

  • How video is reshaping employee communications
  • Social media tools for PR
  • Social Media Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tools
  • Crisis communications in the world of social media
  • How social feedback can result in product innovation and cost savings
  • The case for collaboration: mass adoption in corporations
  • Empowering social media intrapreneurs

A hallmark of the event was the very active Twitter stream resulting in over 6,000 tweets during the event, compared to 2,700 at the 2010 Ragan Social Media Conference held at Cisco. If you want the details on what the audience found relevant, and have the patience to wade through the re-tweets, check out tweet-stream. Incidentally, the Cisco team did a great job monitoring the Twitter back-channel – including a visibletweets posting of tweets on screens at the side of the conference room – Cliff Atkinson would have been proud!

Given that the raw data is available to all, rather than trying to summarize the event, I will offer some opinions (full disclosure, I work as an executive communications manager at Cisco on a contract basis).

Be a squeaky wheel

Marilyn Mersereau, an SVP of Corporate Marketing at Cisco, kicked off the event by drawing attention to the “Cisco Sucks” video posted on YouTube by dissatisfied customer Mike Soltis:

She gave a blow-by-blow account of how, as a senior executive in the organization being targeted by the video, she stepped in and contacted the “cute Canadian” who made the video and offered to resolve the issue for him by buying him a replacement Linksys router.

This became a case study on Guy Winch’s Squeaky Wheel blog. Guy wrote the book on the benefits of being a squeaky wheel. Winch compliments Cisco’s response:

And my hat is off to Cisco, whose executives (if not call-center employees) clearly do know how to go about doing service recoveries the right way! Let’s hope they implement the changes necessary to avoid/minimize such situations in the future.

This case study raised some interesting questions, which were addressed later in the conference:

  • Will it scale? Marilyn was able to resolve one customers problem by opening her checkbook. But why was the support organization out of the loop when it came to monitoring social media so they, not marketing, were the ones to respond? How can social media engagement extend to every corner of the organization? What are the necessary changes that need to be implemented?
  • What kind of social media listening programs and social CRM solutions can large enterprises employ to monitor the huge variety of social media conversations where issues like this might arise?

For consumers, social media clearly empowers the squeaky wheel. Companies are starting to listen. Hint: if you want a freebie, speak up online!

What keeps us up at night

The Ragan audience represented the savvy social media staff of corporate America. They are on the cutting edge of Twitter, Facebook, blogging, video and more. They struggle with questions such as:

  • What needs to happen for more investment to be made in social media by my company?
  • How can I control which departments engage in social media?
  • What’s the long-term maintenance strategy for social media – how can we avoid the “launch it & leave it” mentality?
  • How can I get my senior executive to buy-in to social media?
  • How can we understand the ways in which users interact with what we post?
  • How can we turn negative product reviews around?
  • How can we balance social media policy and discipline and avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water?

Hint: If you are a social media consultant, this is low hanging fruit for solutions to go peddle to corporate America.

Democracy meets autocracy

It seemed to me that the core conversation at the event (the elephant in the room?) was about the inevitable conflict between the radically democratizing impact of social media on essentially autocratic corporations. While individuals can easily and quickly embrace social media, corporations are often hamstrung. Why is this?

Despite the “warm fuzzy” veneer of corporate life (dressing down on casual Friday’s; managers matey use of first names) most corporations are essentially autocracies: the CEO and senior staff control the destiny of employees. This both inhibits the open conversations that occur in the social media environment and undermines the norms of social interaction in the hierarchy. In other words: people are running too scared to be fully engaged in social media.

Hardrinder Kang quoted Thomas Malone in The Future of Work who claims corporations evolve in the same way as societies: from hunter-gatherer “bands” to absolute monarchy (command and control) to democracy.

So how do yesterday’s organizational structures deal with the democratizing forces of tomorrow’s social media?

Answer: not well.

The genii is out of the bottle and the leveling forces of social media mean that you can no longer judge a person’s influence by their grade level. Yet, in the historical transition to democracy, how many monarchs willingly relinquish their crown? How many administrators whose tweets are followed by industry analysts (we heard of one at the conference) are given the financial reward their influence warrants?

I predict that the companies who still ban social media for employees; who think Twitter is a waste of time; who ignore consumer complaint videos on YouTube (or fail to monitor them in real time) – these companies will be superseded by more nimble, social media savvy, organizations. That’s how the Darwinian world works.

So is implementing social media in many corporations like teaching elephants to dance? What do you think? Let me know.

Conference Attendees Speak Out

This was a well organized and worthwhile conference. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s some impressions of the event from conference attendees:

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Great list of tweets curated by @johnproano

Mohan’s nuggets from the conference.

The official Cisco Blog wrap-ups of the meeting: day one and day two.

Nice Post!

Your take, and the videos, really added to my knowledge of the value of Social Media.


Here’s Mark’s quick summary of the event.

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