• This blog has also appeared as the first article in this month’s IDG Connect Newsletter, you can read it there at http://bit.ly/HrU5ZL

      One of our clients’ CIOs found himself totally sandbagged last week, when the CEO asked if the company infrastructure could ‘support social media’.

      The poor chap hadn’t a clue. He remembered the Marketing Director talking about Facebook a couple of months back, but his most immediate priority was migrating to the new SAN.

      Of course that’s not what you tell the boss, so he assured him it was, and an hour or so later phoned to ask me what on earth the chap was talking about.

      Social media has become a huge phenomenon, and marketers are jumping on its bandwagon like there’s no tomorrow, with many thinking that because there’s technology involved, they need the IT department to ‘do something about it.’

      But before you put the next big server rollout on hold, it’s worth just looking below the hype and analyzing just how much impact it’s going to have on the business, and what, if anything you really need to do.

      Facebook, at the time of writing, has around 850 million members, and a lot of big brand activity with company pages. Starbucks has over 50 million ‘likes’, Coke around the same, FC Barcelona has 28 million. Poor old British Airways has yet to score 300,000.

      But what are they getting in return?

      Gartner reports that only 16% of companies have yet formulated a business-wide social media strategy, which covers all elements of how a business engages with its many publics, whereas 84% of businesses are doing things ad hoc.

      This is a key point for CIOs. Infrastructure projects run in cycles of 18-24 months, whereas social media changes its rules almost overnight. Facebook is just six years old, and is already on its umpteenth software iteration. Each time it introduces a new function the algorithms change.

      It also doesn’t help that there’s no customer support to help out if you’ve spent a fortune developing apps to analyze your fan bases, just to suddenly find they no longer work.

      So the short answer to the question is; ‘not a lot’. Getting data out of Facebook is extremely tricky, and a lot of brands are finding that having millions of people ‘liking’ them provides very little hard return on investment, as less than 0.5% ever re-visit the company page.

      But even though many early adopters of social media aren’t getting the expected ROI, the shrewd ones are. They’re the people who realized early on that the secret to social media success is to build and maintain your own community, and use Facebook and Twitter as recruitment channels to get people into your own domain.

      This in turn calls for delivering a very different user experience from a normal corporate website.  Not only does it need five nines availability, instant scalability for spikes in traffic, it will also need a much higher degree of management, as well as a sophisticated CMS to enable user generated content.

      Social media will become a key part of a company’s DNA. We believe passionately that it should be an integral part of every outward facing person’s job role, and that you can’t outsource it. But you can learn from the mistakes of others when setting up your systems and processes.

      Social media is all about sentiment, so you’re going to need textual analysis to warn you when someone posts a gripe, as well as CRM and BI to understand your fans preferences, and tailor offers to catch their interest. You’ll need ‘sentiment analysis’ to be able to see not just what your own community is saying within your own domain, but also monitor the background chatter about your business on the web.

      Even though a lot of people are adopting a wait and see approach, the smart ones are looking carefully at what they might need, working with sales and marketing to understand how their roles are changing, and designing infrastructures that will support them both today and for the foreseeable future.

      Social media may not yet be living up to its hype as a marketing medium, but it is going to. And it is going to change your world, so you need to get it right.

      By Peter Smith, managing partner of the Hot To Trot Marketing Group, one of the UK’s foremost social media consultancies.