“Seven years ago, in spring 2003,  Konstantin Guerke, one of the LinkedIn co-founders invited me to join LinkedIn. I had no idea what he was talking about – but my instinct told me: “go – this is interesting”. My LinkedIn ID: 8573.  I wasn’t too embarrassed not understanding the full scope because he didn’t either! But after a few exploratory meetings with Konstantin I got it. This was the birth of a new era. It was so much more than a new technology – we were on the verge of a new society. A year later I was quoted in Forbes Magazin as we started to hire people via the new media instead of expensive recruiter; I saved approximately $50,000, $30,000 on one search alone.

In 2005 I began to blog and was named one of the first executives freely blogging about my company, our strategy and our directions. The board didn’t like it – in particular because of my grammar and typos. I had to choose between authenticity and an PR department reviewed text. Here is why I voted for authenticity and why. Over the course of the next few years I learned a lot about blogging and commenting. My main takeaway: You don’t have to be nice to everybody – but focus on a value to some. Leaving a good post with no comment is like leaving a good restaurant with no tip. I learned that provocative posts are more valuable because they spark a discussion than lecturing people about your knowledge.

Early 2007 I discovered Twitter. See my first 16 tweets – silly tweets – like almost everybody. One of my friend’s reaction: “Axel, are you completely out of your mind? Are you in a midlife crisis?  Twitter? Oh man…” – After all, yes it was a bit strange, but I had this feeling again – “it’s going to be big”. What I learned about twitter was very important for my social media life: If you are not interested in people walking their dog and eating pizza: You are listening to the wrong conversation – because YOU decide who you follow. Getting massive amounts of followers is like collecting photos or stamps or old cars… (the farmer / hunter model). But the most important learning was this: You learn more about a person within 50 tweets (takes about 100 seconds to read) than you would ever learn in two or even three hour long Face 2 Face meetings. You can argue that – but only if you tried it for yourself and failed.

It’s 2008. In the past 5 years I learned so much about sociology – the one area I was least interested of all when I was in school and one of the most fascinating today. Robert Putnam’s “Bollowing alone” was interesting too, because he missed the most important part of our sociological change: Mass socialization. For a while I kept the title for my own book: “Bowling with Millions”. It became apparent to me that business people around the world are using social media every day without even noticing. Social media changes the way we do business. Unlike the inception of computers or the Internet – social media is the first significant change in the way we do business introduced by the consumer not by the manufacturer. In the past 100 years technology companies introduced massive improvements to producers and traders and helped them to be more economic more effective or more efficient in the way they the organize their business.  The social revolutions is turning this behavior upside down – now it’s the consumer who introduces a better way of dealing with customers to the manufacturer and traders. After a few very successful social media strategy engagements, business friends in VP and CEO level asked me to help understand social media and the impact to their business. After many hours of endless discussions I understood that there is a need to build a new education model to teach social media. Not to lecture how to be more social or how to tweet or how to brush up your Linkedin profile – but how to develop a sound strategy for a better customer experience model. How to analyze and assess the company’s own position in the space, how to plan and execute a cross functional social media engagement. How to organize social media responsibilities across an entire campus instead of pushing it down to a marketing person and the rest of the company does business as usual. That was the birth of the Social Media Academy. Now every month a new tool comes to the market. So the learning continues.

In 2009 we discovered an interesting aspect of maturation. The social media strategy model we developed three years ago is still valid today. The four quadrant assessment model remained to be the same. The dual presence model where we came up with a way to balance branded communities with public spaces is still best practices and so is the organization model where we moved two years ago from a “social media team” to a cross functional engagement model. The other interesting development I noticed is that leaders remain to be leaders. Cisco lead the charge into the social media age with massive engagement while their competitors were arguing about the economy and actually fired their social media people. Pepsi and Coke continue to rival each other – now in the social web and also their competitors are silent spectators of the space. BMW was very active engaging executives in the social web to get feedback on their cars while Ford tried to sue a fan club over logo usage. Comcast engaged to compensate their troubled support force through Twitter and had a great success while their competitors don’t even exist in the social web. WholeFoods while rather expensive and potentially endangered during the recession was thriving through customer engagement on all platforms in contrast to their cheaper competitors like Albertsons who ceased operations in many areas. Ad Social Media was also a game changer in 2008 / 2009 for a few companies. Companies like Zappos went from 0 to 60 in no time and bypassed every competitor. Facebook even so a player in it’s own world bypassed the dominant leader Myspace – not so much through leadership but sheer luck that MySpace was purchased and ever conceivable mistake was made after the purchase. It was also a game changer in the airline industry where JetBlue and a few others clearly made it to become the acknowledged leaders in the space.

2010 – Social Media now 7 years old goes mainstream. Everybody and his dog is at least exploring ways to leverage the new media. Hundreds of thousands already benefit from the space by offering webinars, addon tools, tips to gain a quadro gazillion follower, a bit consulting here and there and books how to use social media for marketing. Unfortunately tens of thousands of companies will fail as they follow cheap advice with no foundation “how to increase sales” with Twitter and Facebook. Democratization of Knowledge will become the biggest obstacle because “1 Million Twitter Experts can’t all be wrong” – Right? So lets grow followership to 50,000 and blast our messages into the new channels till they clog. And this will accelerate as 55 Million registered businesses worldwide will want to leverage Social Media by the end of this decade to develop a better customer experience, grow customer base and compete for more “brand appreciation” (not brand recognition). I expect that the next two years will bring a shakeout on the consulting and expert front. The self proclaimed social media marketing gurus who simply tweaked their old SEO programs into the new social world will make way to more business savvy consultants who can deliver a 360 degree social business model for the new agile enterprises.

The days of evangelizing social media are over. The social media business future is about tangible results. When my clients see improving sales by 20% or increase in customer retention or growing number of recommended customers they can righfully link their improved customer experience model to tangible business results. The question is no longer whether or not somebody is engaging in the social web but how!

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