Global Business Dialogue
Social media is essential to most businesses

A smart social media strategy has become critical to the success of any business, from soft drinks to dirndls, said the speakers on the final panel of the Global Business Dialogue in Berlin.
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Moderator Todd Benjamin, a former CNN reporter, led off the discussion with some statistics to show just how central social media had become to business growth. The Internet, he said, creates 2.6 jobs for every job lost. Seventy-five percent of the Internet’s business impact occurs in traditional industries. And small and medium-sized businesses have seen a 10 percent increase in productivity thanks to the Internet.

Marne Levine, the vice president for global public policy at Facebook, added one of her own: According to a study by the Deloitte Center, her company helped create 230,000 jobs across Europe last year, including 35,000 in Germany, where Facebook added $2.6 billion in economic value.

There is no doubt that social media is now essential to most businesses. The challenge is harnessing the growing power of social media, and making sense of the vast data it provides. John Saunders, the president of Fleishman-Hillard for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, began with a personal note of thanks, as an Irishman, for the support his country has received from Germany, before discussing the adjustments companies would have to make to become effective users of social media.

“If you don’t have a social media strategy, you’re simply not in the game,” Saunders said. “We have to remember how new all this is. But over the next five to six years, you’re going to increasingly see people in their late 20s and early 30s come into senior positions.”

Saunders and Bindi Karia, head of venture capital and emerging business at Microsoft, both emphasized that the growing role of social media meant that employees could never really speak just for themselves; even on private Twitter and Facebook accounts, everyone is seen as an ambassador of his or her company. Likewise, said Karia, people’s social media data can be used by businesses in surprising ways.

“I’ve heard stories of people flying on American Airlines, complaining on Twitter, and then getting upgraded because they have a high Klout score,” said Karia, referring to the web service that measures a person’s social media influence.  

While some managers might be wary of delving into the unfamiliar world of social media, the speakers stressed how low-commitment and low-cost an investment it is, relative to traditional marketing strategies. “You can get a lot with a small budget, and you can get a lot without any budget,” said Beatrice Guillaume-Grabisch, CEO of Beverage Partners Worldwide.

Levine cited two examples of German companies that one would not normally associate with social media, but that have benefited greatly from it: a Munich-based maker of traditional Bavarian clothing that’s been able to grow 25 percent after Facebook promotion, and a kite-surfing company in Hamburg that is expected to triple in size this year after devoting 80 percent of its marketing budget to social media.

Social media has meant an enormous increase in the amount of personal data available to companies, which presents its own challenges. “There’s going to be so much data flowing around,” said Saunders. “What do you do with it? That’s the big question.”

But as huge as social media has gotten, it’s still just in its infancy. Levine said that bumper stickers at Facebook headquarters bear a motto to remind people of the road still ahead: “We’re only 1 percent of the way there.”

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