Social Media: Understanding its risks, rewards and challenges

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WINNIPEG, Man. — Research clearly shows that an increasing number of supply chain professionals are using social media – LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs etc —  to aid them in their day-to-day job functions. Yet, for the most part, supply chain service providers have been slow to respond to this new way to engage with their customers. Should supply chain service providers be jumping on the social media bandwagon?

The risks, rewards and challenges of social media was the subject of an engaging panel session hosted by CITT’s Manitoba Area Council in Winnipeg this week. It included insights from Nigel Fortlage, vice president, information technology and social business leader at GHY International;

Matthew Shepherd, Internet marketing / SEO consultant at Dotdynamic; David Baker, CEO, Think Shift; and Lou Smyrlis, editorial director, Transportation Media. The panel was moderated by CITT’s Reg Wightman.

“What is this concept of social media all about? And why is it so important for companies to understand what it is and the power it holds?” moderator Reg Wightman asked in kicking off the session.

Wightman pointed to the impact the Internet has already had on supply chain management. For example, the advent of the Internet has pushed order cycle times from weekly to daily or hourly; enabled customer service strategies to shift from rigid and reactive to responsive and flexible; and replenishment to happen in real time rather than scheduled time.

Could the Internet’s latest offshoot, social media, have a similar impact on how providers of supply chain services and the people who purchase those services interact with each other?

Research shows it already is. More than half of Canada’s supply chain professionals already look online for collaboration and sharing of information, according to research conducted in 2011 by BGR Coaching and Strategic Solutions (formerly Gary Breininger & Associates) in partnership with our sister publication, Canadian Transportation & Logistics.  And 9 1in 10 are turning to social media site LinkedIn to not only exchange contact information with other supply chain participants but also to look for answers to challenges they are facing. A considerable number of supply chain and transportation-related groups have sprung up on LinkedIn, providing easy forums to discuss industry issues among industry professionals. The same research indicated that reading of supply chain blogs is pervasive with only 2% of respondents indicating they don’t follow at least one blog. More than 40% of supply chain professionals are also using Facebook for business purposes and a third are using YouTube. A small but increasing number is also turning to Twitter.

“The strategic implications for transportation companies and other providers of supply chain services of this trend towards increasing use of social media is huge,” said Transportation Media’s Smyrlis. “How do such service providers stay relevant? How do they stand out in a crowded marketplace? Certainly having a well functioning Web Site with lots of good information is still important but it can’t end there anymore.”

As DotDynamic’s Baker explained, business professionals turn to the Internet and its latest offshoot, social media, to get answers to questions. To remain relevant, rather than simply advertising their services in the traditional manner, businesses have to ensure they can be found when clients and potential clients are asking essential questions and are capable of providing helpful information.

“It requires a shift in attitude. It’s a move away from the notion of broadcasting (your marketing message) to a notion of how do we connect with people?” Baker said, adding the cautious note that companies have to be listening to “this great conversation” going on online among their customers because increasingly  “Your company brand is not what you say it is; it’s what everybody else says it is.”

In other words, the company brand is increasingly being judged not by the sleekness or creativity of its traditional marketing message but rather by the quality of its online engagement in helping its customers find solutions to problems.

Shepherd’s DotDynamic is an Internet marketing company which helps businesses find, understand, and reach their online audiences.  That means helping companies understand what those audiences – for example, purchasers of transportation services – are looking for when they are online; what information the company can provide that would be most useful; and the best way to deliver that information.

“Companies can get lost in social media because they don’t know what to say or what channel to use,” Shepherd warned.

GHY International, a Winnipeg based customs broker and international trade solutions provider, jumped into social media back in 2010. For Fortlage, clarity comes from first asking why?

“In using social media you have to go back to why does your company want to do it? If your answer is because your competition is doing it, that’s the wrong answer. Look at your business plan and your strategic direction. Why do you want to do this? At GHY, as the economy dropped in 2008, we didn’t like where things were going.  We wanted to fill our sales channel and we looked at strategies of what we needed to do. We believed (the answer) was in strategies of market outreach,” Fortlage said.  “First you have to anticipate the questions (clients are looking to answer in using social media) and then you have to be found. At GHY we call this having the hunters find us.”

Of course, there is also the critical question of what to say that is both helpful and unique.

“We found something none of our competitors are talking about because it creates no revenue for traditional competitors focused on clearing a truck through a border. We talk about integrated trade compliance strategies. It created a new market and new customers because our customers are now the CEO and CFO since we are talking about risk and compliance management not just customs brokerage, Fortlage said.

Fortlage also cautioned against the mistake of thinking the different social media platforms are the actual media strategy. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.  are merely social media tools to be used to build the company’s social media strategy and they will likely change over time. He provided the example of MySpace, which was the predominant social media site before Facebook rose to its current prominence.

Shepherd also cautioned against making social media the only thing companies do online.

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” he said. “Social media should be part of your overall marketing strategy. Driving people to your Website is still the end goal.”

And finally, all the panelists warned against seeing social media as providing a quick payoff.

“Social media is about building trust and it’s a long term game. But building that trust will mean that (customers) will recognize your expertise and they will come to you when they have a need,” Shepherd said.

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