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The social media phenomenon isn’t about technology. It’s about people

“While delivering my washing to our local dry cleaner this morning, I realised the reason why I always go back to that specific dry cleaner: it is a result of an intimate relationship that has developed between me and the owners over a period of time. The owners know me by name and the name of my wife. They know that I am happy to collect my washing the following day. They know how I like my shirts ironed and the list goes on. In turn, I know that opening the dry cleaning business was something they planned to do when they retired and that they moved from Durban to Johannesburg to be close to their family. The relationship we have formed has reached a point that I feel guilty if I do not take our dry cleaning to them.”

DAVID GRAHAM, www.memeburn.com, (September 17, 2012)

Take a look at the excerpt from David Graham’s excellent recent piece. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what business relationships are all about. In any business, in any industry, in any era.

I led The Strategy Summit at Strathmore Business School last week for CEOs and senior executives. We focused this year on harnessing the power of social media for today’s businesses. What has that got to do with Mr Graham’s drycleaner, you ask? Why, everything. Mr Graham, by the way, is a thought leader in digital business for Deloitte in South Africa.

The social media phenomenon is viewed by too many CEOS as ‘technology.’ It’s not. It’s about human beings and their need to mingle, share, argue and commune. You will not understand this phenomenon if you focus on the technology; you need to understand people.

Mr Graham’s relationship with his drycleaner contains several human elements. The drycleaner knows him and his laundry needs, intimately. Mr Graham in turn knows his service provider very well. They engage in dialogues, not monologues; they are sensitive to each other. The relationship is open: a promise has been made by the drycleaner, and Mr Graham trusts him to keep it. And finally, there is reciprocity: both take responsibility for the relationship, rather than talking across high walls.

Those four elements (knowledge; dialogue; trust; and reciprocity) lie at the heart of the matter. They apply to all business relationships, whether with a drycleaner, a global bank, a media house or a power supply company.

Social media platforms provide an unprecedented opportunity to take our businesses back in time. That’s right, back in time. Once upon a time all businesses were small-town affairs, relying on the goodwill and trust of a small but highly connected set of customers. If the business had good products or service, everyone got to know, quickly. If it was bad, ditto. The business had to be a good business in order to succeed. The impact of bad behaviour (and good) was fast and furious.

As businessman and thinker Gary Vaynerchuk has also pointed out, all businesses are back to being village businesses again. Their customers are now connected to all others all of the time, all over again. They now have lots of of conversations about brands and businesses, all the time, on social networks. If you are not leading that conversation, or managing it, you may find yourself in more difficulty than you can imagine.

Kenyan businesses are waking up to this reality. If your business does bad things, this will become amplified and transmitted for all to know, overnight. If it does good things, it can build a brand faster and better than ever before – if it knows how to.

So the question is not whether you really need to understand social media in business. The question now is how long it’s going to take to make the whole of your business wholeheartedly social, the way it was always meant to be.

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