I keep reading about brands that have used social media to reach their audience.  It’s kind of funny when you think about that.  First it’s funny because traditional media is writing about the very media that is killing them.  Second, it’s funny how obsessed we are that social media is ‘different’ from old media.  There seems to be a belief that social is inherently better.  Why is that?  Is it because social is seen as more democratic?  Is it because social is seen as more real?  Or is it because social is just the new way?

Before I go any further let me get one thing off my chest.  While there is some traditional media left, the vast majority of media is now social.  Most of our media has social aspects to it.  We can share it, comment on it, create our own versions of it and directly influence it.  Some purists would say that organizations such as the BBC are traditional media businesses.  Yet if you look at almost all their online content it has a social element to it.  The BBC has made real efforts to embrace social media and social network concepts.  I still feel they could go a lot further but they have come a very long way in the last year.  Organizations such as the New York Times have also taken bold steps as have publications such as Forbes.  Again, there is more they could do but you have to applaud their efforts.  We now follow their editors on Twitter, we get their news in real-time, we see comments from other readers.

So does all this mean that social is now the norm?  I’d say that many aspects of social are the norm.  Publications have realized that the value of content is directly linked to the number of people that share that content.  Sharing an old fashioned print story was hard and rarely happened.  Sharing a news story via twitter, Facebook, email etc is all too easy.  So easy in fact that we are now looking for ways to filter all the content.  When social arrived we all loved the idea that we could effectively let our friends filter the content for us.  If our friends thought it was worth re-tweeting it was probably worth a read.  With thousands of tweets landing on our feeds each day that method is a bust.  We now need tools to filter the filter.

So the challenge for the media isn’t to become more social.  The smart ones have already done that and are now struggling with how to break through all the clutter.  Put another way, social media is starting to deal with the very same challenge most companies have been wrestling with since so much commerce went online.  When people started buying products online search optimization took off.  Now of course most social content has some optimization built in.  But I’d argue that most tweets, blogs and YouTube videos are not that optimized (this blog is a great example).  Indeed it would seem that content optimization is still a huge opportunity for the creators of content.  Indeed I’d argue it is THE opportunity.

I’m sure some of the social media gurus out there will say I have this all wrong but IMHO there is still more talk than action on search from comms staff.  Most comms staff don’t discuss search strategies, they talk about content strategies.  They don’t conduct search audits, they conduct messaging audits.  This is not surprising.  Most of the people in communications have grown up with content as king.  We are trained to find ways to craft messages not optimize for real time search engines.  I’d argue that our obsession with content is a good thing BUT that we need an equal obsession on search if we are to win in a digital world.  Content, however great it may be, has no value if nobody can find it.

Business planning…. should you do it?

People who work with me, get tired of me talking about the “who rather than the what.’ It’s a line Jim Collins made famous and is at the core of his series of management books. His analysis shows that it is way more important to have the right people than the right plan. It makes sense. If you have the wrong people, then it doesn’t matter how good your plan is, it will likely fail. Great people, on the other hand, will likely do the right thing. This is fabulous but it suggests that business planning may be a waste of time. It suggests you just hire smart people, give them the right role and let them get on with it. It’s awfully tempting to try and run a business that way but frankly I’m not sure I have the nerve. I still find the process of getting people in a room to share their plans and ideas for the future to be fascinating, motivational and generally useful. Now that’s not to suggest that they actually end up delivering on those plans. Far from it. In fact I have only one business in eight that will deliver the plan they said they would this time last year. The rest are either ahead or behind in some way or another. Does that matter? For public companies it can if they are about to miss their forecasts but for most private companies missing plan isn’t that big a deal.

Going back a step, what all this, so called, planning does is not give you a sense of what is really going to happen but rather what you need to worry about, invest in and stop doing. Most of us can’t ‘control’ our customers. But we can can control whether we deliver the best product/service to them and deliver a great experience in the process. But if they run out of money, have poor judgement (which we all have form time to time) or find something they think is better then there’s little we can do. This means that even really well run companies will get surprises on the downside and upside leaving their detailed plan of six months ago, looking largely academic. So, as someone about to start the business planning process, I’ve been thinking a lot about how should we approach this ‘season’. My conclusions are simple:

1. Use data so that we can learn from the last year, two years etc. Then write down those learnings and spend time analyzing them.

2. Talk to your customers to make sure you are doing what they want you to do. It sounds really obvious but too many times people ‘assume’ they know what the customer wants based on meetings they’ve held on subjects that were related to planning. Customers love to give feedback, just look at all the social content that’s out there!

3. Talk to your staff. Again it sounds obvious but I often find that junior or new staff have no clue what the business plan is they are working to. They simply know their small part of the puzzle. Yet these people often have a great perspective on what you could do better and what needs to change.

4. Create a culture where people feel like they can ask for anything. OK, maybe not anything. But you do need a culture where people feel like they can ask for investment, ask to start a new business, ask that you buy a business etc.

5. Plans are more than numbers. This is the really hard part. Business plans can often just be a set of spreadsheets. This data is very helpful but it’s not a plan. It’s one output of the plan. It doesn’t tell you who is doing what, when and how.

6. Keep doing it. Make the questioning, brainstorming, insights and innovation that comes from planning a continual part of how you do business.

All that said, I still go back to the Jim Collins philosophy and say that if you have a choice between great planning and great employees, choose employees every time. They might not always produce accurate plans but they will build a great business.