When a late arrival thought he'd catch up on the buzz at a recent conference of CIOs, he logged into Twitter. What he found -- or rather didn't find -- amazed him.
"I couldn't find a single tweet about what was happening at the conference that morning -- 300 CIOs in a room and not a single one using Twitter," recalls Paul Gillin, founder of Paul Gillin Communications, a social media consultancy in Framingham, Mass. Gillin, a former Computerworld editor in chief, was referring to a 2010 conference held by a vendor he didn't want to name.
Though he acknowledges that marketing is the dominant use of social media tools, the lack of Twitter activity by a group of CIOs "didn't make sense to me," Gillin says. "When a new technology comes into use, it is IT's responsibility to understand it."
"Were they healthcare CIOs? We're always five to 10 years behind," says Ed Marx, CIO at Texas Health Resources in Arlington, in response to Gillin's anecdote. Marx, who calls himself a "big-time" Twitter user, says, "it's unfortunate that CIOs who really should be out there leading and experimenting and innovating are not."
Marx says he started using Twitter two and a half years ago, and now regularly uses Facebook, LinkedIn and an internal social media tool.
Marx and others aside, IT in general appears ambivalent about social media. In a 2009 survey of over 1,400 CIOs by Robert Half Technology, more than half of the respondents said that their companies banned social media use by employees. Another 19% said their companies limited social media activity to business use only.
When the staffing firm updated its social media survey in May, only 31% of the CIOs polled said their companies ban social media outright.
A 2009 Manpower study (download PDF) based on a survey of 34,000 employers -- the respondents weren't necessarily CIOs -- found that only 24% percent of U.S. companies had formal policies about social media.
Outside looking in
"I don't see IT taking the function over," says Joseph Yanoska, vice president of technology at American Greetings Interactive in Cleveland. He thinks marketing should control the technology, since "it's ultimately a tool to help the relationship with customers."
But Gillin doesn't think that means IT should be less involved than it was when, for instance, companies began adopting ERP systems 15 years ago. "IT was very involved in that despite the fact that ERP was an accounting technology," he says. Social media, he adds, "is the future of how companies will operate, will engage with customers. IT should have an important role in it."
Yanoska does want a somewhat bigger part in his company's social media operation. He runs IT for the online unit of American Greetings, which operates AmericanGreetings.com, BlueMountain.com, eGreetings.com and greeting card sites for MSN and Yahoo. He says IT would like to be able to use the company's social networking tools more freely, so it could, for example, have an easier way to inform customers about new features or site maintenance.
Right now, designated non-IT gatekeepers post on the sites, and IT has to make its case when it wants to post something. Even though IT only makes such requests once every couple of weeks, "sometimes we get it, sometimes we don't," Yanoska says. So he is pushing to get IT more of a voice, and he would like more options for posting on Facebook, especially when maintenance upgrades are about to happen. "We're finding that's a really good place [to tell] customers who are really invested in the brand, 'We plan to do maintenance.' [That way] you don't get those posts, 'Hey what's going on?' because they already know," Yanoska says.
At Texas Health, Marx went the other direction and has ratcheted down his personal involvement. That's because he drove the company's adoption of the technology, using Twitter for collaboration and communications, starting Facebook fan pages, LinkedIn groups, a Texas Health Twitter feed, and microsites to connect with employees and patients. He says a microsite is crucial for getting employees in particular to adopt electronic health records, using it to encourage them to try social media tools and become more comfortable with the technology.
As more parts of the business got involved in social media, Texas Health created a 10-person social media steering committee. Members included the president of the hospital and the heads of marketing and communications, human resources, legal and compliance. Marx is also on the committee. Other groups within the company, primarily marketing, handle day-to-day social media operations now, which Marx says makes sense. He plays a strategic role, devising new ideas and figuring out new ways to leverage social media.
IT becoming more involved
IT may be stepping up its involvement as use of social media spreads. "Our reliance on IT support is heavier now" than it was two years ago, says Jesse Redniss, vice president of digital at NBC Universal/USA Network. Redniss's group not only helps market content and shows, but also runs a thriving casual gaming business, with its own profit-and-loss statement.
NBC Universal adopted a setup where IT operates infrastructure and tools used across the company, including a video content management system, data-mining tools and a single sign-on system for visitors to all of its Web properties. To handle department-specific IT projects, the company has a unit called Digital Products and Services (DPS).
Redniss says he used to think IT was too cumbersome to respond quickly enough for social media needs, but he now says "we didn't fully understand how much we needed them."
Over the past couple of years, as NBC Universal has developed broad corporate efforts involving Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other social media sites, data management and data mining have grown more important components. "We really do need to figure out the right kind of funnels to build to bring everything to them so they can store it, and we can sift through it," he says.
But his unit will still make its own technology decisions, too. Toward that end, Redniss recruited a DPS employee named Robin Fordham to join NBC Universal/USA Network 18 months ago. "I just jumped the fence," says Fordham, who is now director of technology for the USA television network. "Instead of USA Net being my client, I work for them directly."
Fordham has a small team of developers working for him. He says they figure out how to execute Redniss's ideas. For instance, when Redniss wanted to improve customer loyalty, Fordham's group took the lead in adopting Bunchball, which uses gaming to build loyalty. His unit also has done most of the work in adopting Echo's Streamserver commenting engine. Bunchball is gaining traction across NBC Universal's websites, and may soon become the province of the centralized IT group.
Social networking has roared to the top of many corporate to-do lists. In an eMarketer survey of 227 companies with more than 100 employees, 80% of the respondents said that their companies intended to use social media for marketing purposes in 2011, up from 58% in 2009.
Meanwhile, use of social networking is growing in other departments, thanks to new tools and new strategies.
Social media tools are spreading "across all departments," says Michael Fauscette, an analyst at research firm IDC. IDC does a twice-yearly survey measuring which departments manage social media strategies and tools. When the firm first launched the survey three and a half years ago, marketing dominated the results.
As social media matures, more tools are becoming available for managing different aspects of social networking. IDC analyst Michael Fauscette says that while business units remain involved in picking the tools, IT increasingly helps select and implement them. In addition, established enterprise applications, including Salesforce, Oracle, NetSuite and RightNow, are adding social networking features. Meanwhile, social media vendors are merging or adding new features to make themselves more useful to companies.
Here are some of the main vendors in various categories of tools:
Analytics: Lithium Technologies, Radian6 (now owned by Salesforce.com), Trampoline
Customer service: Attensity, Get Satisfaction
Loyalty programs: Badgeville, BigDoor, Bunchball
Metrics/reputation management: Hearsay, Shoutlet, SocialEye
Intranet-based social collaboration: BlueKiwi, Jive, Yammer
Sources: Interviews, IDC
"[Marketing] was by far the most prevalent department," Fauscette noted. "Now it's pretty even distribution across all departments, including sales and customer service." Fauscette says social media is used internally for collaboration and for idea generation, and externally for marketing and crisis response.
When it comes to managing the strategy behind social media, however, IDC's survey results show that marketing still rules -- it handles that responsibility at 48% of companies -- and IT isn't involved at all. Corporate communications is second, cited by 29% of the respondents as one of the departments that handles social media strategy (multiple answers are permitted). Meanwhile, 26% of the respondents named product development, 23% said customer service, and 16% named sales.
Fauscette calls this shift a sign of the maturing of the social media market. He says that this means social tools will begin to become part of IT's purview. "We're starting to see IT more involved in what they should be: helping implement and find the right tools, produce the tools, and optimize the work."
He also notes that when social media moves out of marketing's control, "it puts you in a much better position from a business perspective to look at it in broader terms." That's what IT can come in and start to do, in other words.
IT's role: Tool-master
For now, though, IT shows up in the integration and implementation of the tools, a role that Fauscette says makes sense. When the technology moves beyond experimenting, or department-level expense charge-offs, "the CIO is in the room a lot of the time. Firms need a broader perspective," Fauscette says.
One CIO who's "in the room" is Craig Neeb, who is both CIO and vice president of multichannel marketing at International Speedway Corp., which operates racetracks across the country, from Daytona to Watkins Glen in New York to the Auto Club Speedway in California.
Neeb has been CIO at International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., since 2000. He added his marketing role in 2008, about a year before social media became important to International Speedway's marketing strategy. The company now uses websites for each of its dozen tracks and runs mobile marketing and social media campaigns, primarily on Facebook and Twitter. It also has a customer contact center that makes and takes phone calls, and runs Web chats.
International Speedway is publicly traded, so having control over the marketing technology helps Neeb make sure the company is in compliance with regulations, such as those spelled out in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, and guidelines promulgated by private industry groups, such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards.
Unlike American Greetings, International Speedway will let pretty much any employee post on its websites and social media sites. But first they must go through what Neeb calls "a small little training program" that takes about an hour. Some of that open attitude is reflected in the company's management structure.
"We don't do anything in functional silos," Neeb says. "Our digital strategy isn't owned by a department. It's owned by consumer marketing and technology," with support from human resources, legal and compliance.
Social media's problems
Companies have found that social media does present challenges, many of which fall into IT's strategic purview. A report issued earlier this year by ISACA, an association for IT auditors and related professionals, listed the following risks that companies face when they get involved in social networking:
Increased likelihood of spreading viruses and malware.
Potential for brand hijacking.
Loss of control over corporate content.
Unrealistic customer expectations for 'Internet-speed' service.
Breaches of rules and regulations.
Neeb thinks that companies will have to adopt a broader approach to management of social media activities. "I don't see how you can effectively manage any media outlet in a vacuum," he says. IT can play a role, because it has expertise in technology for dealing with compliance, security and system management.
IT could also increase its own use of social networking tools. While companies' customer service organizations are rapidly embracing social media, Gartner analyst Jarod Greene says less than 1% of IT support groups use social media tools to communicate with their internal clients.
Don't be a noob (newbie)
CIOs who want a seat at the social media table should be using social media tools in their own work and personal lives, Marx says. "If I came up and said 'Hey, I want to be part of the social media strategy around here' and I didn't tweet, I didn't blog, I wasn't on Facebook, I didn't use LinkedIn, I'd have no cred," he says.
Marx says relies on his staff to help him keep up with trends. He also has two doctors who are involved in IT, and they help him stay in touch with the needs of medical professionals. He has also embraced reverse-mentoring, having enlisted a twentysomething staffer to counsel him on new technology.
"Young people roll to a different tune," Marx says. "CIOs can't be noobs."
Especially if they want to avoid being anti-social.
Michael Fitzgerald is a freelance writer based outside of Boston.