What’s the return on that investment?

Note: This is my fourth in a series of blog posts on Vancity’s social media journey over the last five years. Both Ron Shevlin and The Financial Brand have written very good posts recently on the topic of social media ROI, so I thought I’d join in.

I find it interesting and troubling that so much of the focus on social media has been on ROI. I am starting to think that this whole discussion thread is very close to pointless.

[I love this cartoon by the amazing and brilliant Rob Cottingham.]

Some people have successfully measured the ROI of social media and proven its value. Great. And there are some case studies, especially for larger companies with expensive and complex customer service channels, where the ROI is pretty good. But for the rest of us, honestly, it’s a stretch at best.

Truthfully, even if you do measure the ROI of social media, it likely pales in comparison with the ROI of other digital tactics such as email, multivariate testing, usability enhancements or search engine marketing. In most cases, social media is a bad bet from a purely ROI perspective. More relevant is the fact that most organizations aren’t sophisticated enough to measure the ROI of it anyway.

I believe that the reason many companies have gotten involved with social media is that some people in Marketing and Communications departments personally like Facebook and Twitter and then introduce these tools into their organizations. If the culture of the organization isn’t permissive, progressive or ready, that can be an abdication of professional responsibility – to put one’s own preferences and proclivities ahead of the needs and abilities of the company who hired them.

The other danger with this approach is that it starts from the middle. Social media is the kind of activity that the whole organization needs to get behind. If a handful of people in Marketing or Communications “own” it, and the C-suite isn’t behind it (or aware of it), it’s going nowhere fast.

As an aside, my take on ROI for successful business casing is that there needs to be a definable and beneficial financial return balanced with a strong alignment with the mission, vision and values of the organization. In other words, it’s usually about hearts and minds. Rarely can a business case achieve a perfect balance of both, and when it can it’s an amazing opportunity. When it comes to proving the value of social media, it’s about furthering the organization’s vision and brand, more than the financial return.

So if you’re sick of the same old Comcast and Best Buy case studies trying to rationalize social media, you’re not alone. Instead, connect your social media strategy inextricably to the ways you already engage community.

At Vancity, the accountability for social media rests within the Digital & Community Engagement department I manage, the same team that manages our community project grants, sponsorships and events. These are activities where the expectation of ROI is softer or even absent because these initiatives relate to the deeper purpose or, dare I say, mission of the organization. The way I see it, most traditional companies’ sole mission is to maximize profit for shareholders, and arguably not directly related to their customers, making social media a harder fit for traditional companies to embrace. (I know some will disagree with this, but my opinion is that companies focus on customer service merely to increase shareholder value – I prefer the co-operative model where the customers themselves are the shareholders.)


My advice is: don’t get caught in the ROI trap. Align strategically with areas where your organization currently engages its customers, members or stakeholders – make a real link with the mission of the organization. If you have to prove true ROI, if your organization requires it for everything you do, change focus to email marketing or some other digital marketing tactic and please the organization that way. Otherwise, I would suggest that you’re not being true to the nature and culture of your organization and therefore can’t authentically leverage social media anyway. Or you’re simply at the wrong organization and need to be at a company where you can do what you think is right, while also doing what is right for the company that hired you and signs your paycheques.

Again, thanks to Rob Cottingham for letting me use his Noise to Signal cartoons in my post.

Changing everything.

As I wrote in my last two posts, I’m exploring this journey of engagement I’ve been on during my five-plus years at Vancity. My role, as I see it, is to illuminate the network of staff members, personal members, business members and not for profit, social enterprise and co-operative members that make up Vancity.

Reimagining ChangeEverything.

A big advancement we’ve recently made is a total reimagining of ChangeEverything.ca. This social network – that we launched way back in 2006 when Facebook required a .edu email address and Twitter didn’t yet exist – had one big problem: Vancity, a major contributor to social change in our area, was at complete arms length from the activity on the site. Back in 2006 this made perfect sense, very few people in any given organization could comfortably and confidently engage via social media. Most people just weren’t there. For the last couple of years Kate and I have been struggling with what to do about that, how to bring the site closer to what Vancity does.

The HubA couple of weeks back, we relaunched ChangeEverything as The Hub. It’s a brand new community, and is in the early stages of growing (so forgive it for being a little sparse as we soft launch).

Why call it The Hub? A hub has something at its core, a focal point around which activity revolves, and in our case that centre is Vancity. There is an illustration on the focus page of the site that explains the concept, and what we’re trying to achieve.

The Hub is where Vancity can illuminate the network of staff members, individual members, business members and not for profit members that make up what Vancity is. We need to break down the silos and walls, and get real honest conversation going about our well-being. Financial well-being, social well-being and environmental well-being. That’s what Vancity is all about – that’s our vision and our brand.

Where ChangeEverything came from.

The concept of ChangeEverything sprang from a Vancity marketing campaign from 2006 (you can change everything if you change where you bank). It isn’t language we use internally or externally anymore, and as a result the concept of the site doesn’t connect to anything else we’re doing. Despite all its success, staff and members have found the purpose of the site confusing, and engagement among staff on ChangeEverything has been very low.

Perhaps most importantly, the very notion of ChangeEverything is not our MO – we’re not about changing everything. We’re pretty committed to some key areas of focus where we believe change is required, and we feel we can provide authentic leadership as an organization.

One feature of the site that I’m most proud of is the impact map. This is one of the key places where we can answer the question many of our members have: I know Vancity does amazing things to support community, but what are you doing in my community? The impact map showcases grants we’ve given, and will expand to other success stories, like our impact lending and community investments. It’s a way of bringing what we do to life, and I’m pretty excited about it.

Where The Hub is going.

The goal (and the site is nascent so this isn’t obvious yet) is to have employees from different areas of Vancity (different branches, the Community Investment division, our Community Foundation, etc…) all becoming organizations on The Hub to represent what they do in a natural, human way. These employees, under the Vancity umbrella, can interact and engage with our individual members and the public around what Vancity is doing in community and what we do with our members’ precious assets. Business members and individual members can interact – perhaps businesses can offer exclusive deals to their fellow members to encourage shopping local, which is good for the regional economy. Not for profit members can reach out to the network to share stories of the brave work they’re doing and their outcomes and impacts in our communities. Perhaps they can find willing donors and volunteers from among our staff and membership. It’s a powerful network that I believe, with connections and stories, can be transformative. Vancity is a catalyst for this kind of activity – this is why a local credit union invests so much back into communities, for the holistic well-being of our membership.

The original ChangeEverything, from a marketing perspective, was a brand play. It extended our brand in a way that reflected our differentiation. The aim is that The Hub will be about the business. As we move forward with key impact areas where we lend and invest to create community impact in a profitable way (such as local, organic food and energy efficiency) this site can help make us the place to come to for these kinds of deals. It will increase word of mouth among businesses and organizations looking for financing in these growth areas that we’ve identified as good for the community and good for the company, as well as individuals interested in supporting community impact directly through their investments and credit.

This is the reason why our approach to social media – and especially Twitter – is so important. We need to accelerate the emerging culture among employees who are ready to jump onto social media on behalf of Vancity. If The Hub is to come to life, we need a cross-section of our staff out there and engaging, just like they do in real life, attending events and getting involved with the community.

So check out The Hub. I hope, over time, it can help people experience what Vancity is, rather than just being told what it is, and ultimately illuminate the network that exists between and among our staff and our members.

Matching the inside and the outside.

As I explored in my last my last post, I believe Vancity can use social media to create linkages between and among our staff and our members. Staff is a critical part of that equation, and not a community people talk about a lot when they talk about social media.

Vancity has nothing to say, its employees do. When you walk into a branch or call our call centre you don’t talk to Vancity, you talk to a real human being, so why not replicate that experience using social media? Make it an online extension of the kinds of conversations staff and members are already having.

My goal is to illuminate the network of staff, personal members, business members and not for profit, social enterprise and co-operative members that makes up Vancity – a network which is hardly utilized or even exposed. I consider it a central part of my new role and my department’s work to illuminate these networks, connecting the people who are part of Vancity to each other to create value and enhance well-being. Twitter is an amazing way to do that, and yet I don’t see many organizations using social media in this obvious way. There is risk involved, sure, but the risk is very small compared to the huge risks any financial institution encounters on a daily basis as part of its standard operating practices (bank robberies, anyone?).

Staff is your core community.

On Vancity’s journey using digital tools to mirror, extend and accelerate the way we engage communities offline, one factor that can’t be overstated, and one that I don’t hear others speak to much at all, is the utilization of internal social media within the organization.

In the Digital & Community Engagement department I lead, we’re fortunate that social media lives in the same department as our Intranet. As a result, when we introduced internal social media tools for staff with the relaunch of our Intranet in late 2010, we could focus on community building among staff within that project.

Our employees are a key community – they are instrumental in engaging our members and the public in what Vancity is doing. If they’re connected to what we’re doing, they can include this key differentiator in every member interaction. The new internal social media tools unleashed a culture and sense of community that had been there, but staff didn’t have the tools to engage on a large scale.

If your organization is struggling with social media, starting with internal social technology for staff is like installing training wheels. One advantage is that there is no anonymity (and I believe that internally, unlike out in the wild, every comment and post should be transparently traceable back to the employee who made it). It also acclimatizes the employees and the culture to this new mode of communicating. People can see it’s not all that scary and people are, for the most part, trustworthy and decent.

Build a culture of trust.

We made a smart choice in not governing the hell out of these tools, and instead chose to treat our staff like adults, and trust them not to violate simple rules of community engagement. We treat violations as one-offs and deal with them individually, rather than govern the life out of the entire community. In an earlier post, my friend Jeremy Osborn left a comment about whether it’s easier at a social-purpose business, and this may be true. If a great percentage of your employees are at the company for very similar reasons and personally align to the mission of the organization, I think it helps create trust that staff will do the right thing. It creates a uniformity of purpose that, I believe, requires less policing.

This goes back to a central principle I learned from the brilliant Rob Cottingham back in 2006 when we were designing ChangeEverything: Be a concierge, not a security guard. Focus on encouraging the kind of dialogue and engagement you DO want instead of focusing on shutting down the kind of activity you don’t want (and, in fact, may rarely get). It’s amazing how many times we’ve referred back to this precept over the last five years. Very, very useful because it’s easy to catch yourself building a wall when you meant to be building a bridge.

Organizationally, where the social media and Intranet functions are placed is far more valuable than many organizations realize. Alignment between these two areas is, I believe, critical to mutual success. The launch of internal social media is an incredibly important part of any company’s journey to unleashing engagement, because the more you trust people to behave responsibly, the better off you’ll be. And that is a central tenant of meaningful engagement.

“All social media is inherently authentic” is a quote I like a lot. To be authentic in today’s world, you have to match the inside with the outside.

A journey of engagement.

Social media is about people – people engaging with each other. So simple, and yet this basic concept has, I believe, been the major stumbling block for companies trying to embrace social media.

Lots of people like using social media. They like the social interaction, the sharing and collaborating. But companies aren’t people and, I believe, are inherently at a disadvantage when using this technology.

So many companies use social media so very poorly.

On Twitter, I hardly even follow any companies anymore. If I have a reason to tweet with a company, I actually feel a little vulnerable. They know who I am, they can see my profile, my photo, links to my website. I’m a person. Who are they? Who am I speaking with? When I deal with a company in person, I deal with a customer service representative, often wearing a name tag. On the phone they always tell me their name (or at least a name). The interactions get humanized, at least somewhat.

But on social media, a very human way of interacting, it’s all anonymous on the company’s side. Some have taken steps to add tags indicating which person on the social media team is tweeting, but I don’t think that really works – it’s unintuitive and clunky. And, ultimately, who the hell wants to engage with someone on a company’s social media team?

Why can’t social media connect the network of employees at a company to their customers? Why not decentralize the staffing of an organization’s social media presence? Why can’t this model of human interaction actually drive the social media strategy?

Over the next few blog posts, I’ll explore some of my evolving views on social media. I think we’re finally coming out of the experimentation phase and embarking on something much more interesting. I often reflect on something Ron Shevlin once said to me, that social media will be as profound a change as people think, but it will come at a much slower pace (did I get that right, Ron?). In the meantime, here’s a professional Vancity example I want to share.

Vancity’s Twitter pilot.

Vancity got on Twitter “late”. And there are good reasons for that – mostly we weren’t ready to do it in a way that was as authentic as how we like to show up in community. Now that we have jumped on board, we’re taking a slightly different approach. My view is that social media is about illuminating the network that makes up Vancity. As a co-operative, Vancity is a network of employees, individual members, business members and not-for-profit, social enterprise & co-operative members. Social media should make it easier for those people and groups to connect directly with each other. That’s an exciting part of our value proposition as a financial co-operative that we’ve only just started to really explore.

Vancity on TwitterA couple of months back, we quietly started a Twitter pilot at Vancity. We recruited staff across the organization who met basic criteria, like having their manager’s approval, gave them some basic training, our super-simple social media guidelines, asked them to use the #VancityCU hashtag and unleashed them to represent us, just like they do in real life. We had a nice mix of staff sign up and the group slowly expanded to represent a decent cross-section of departments across Vancity and the geographic regions of our branches.

My own view is that on Twitter, mostly the @Vancity account should merely retweet what our employees have to say. When a member walks into a branch, they don’t speak to Vancity, they speak to a specific person, with whom they hopefully develop a relationship. I believe that, in a perfect world, the @Vancity account would have nothing original to say, and all news, information and interactions would directly originate with one of our employees (but life isn’t that pure).

At Vancity, our approach is on community engagement, not straight-up communications or member service. We published our employees’ social media guidelines transparently on Vancity.com for all to see, and trust that the people who interact with members on a daily basis, handling large cash transactions and financial advice, can handle social media equally responsibly.

This subtle difference in approach is, I think, fairly profound. Allowing any responsible employee to be on social media, and use @Vancity to amplify their voice when what they tweet is relevant to the Vancity world is a pretty cool model. Not a model just any organization can replicate, because it gets to the heart of the culture we have.

I’m learning a lot from our employees, because we’re harnessing the wisdom of crowds a little. I’m only as smart and creative as I can be, but 25 employees across the organization bring their own ideas to the game and make us all better. (I distrust rules for stuff like this, but I have started preaching the 1% rule, where I’d like 1% of Vancity’s 2,200 employees engaging authentically on social media.)

It’s an exciting time, and we’re embarking on some new ways of doing old things. I’ll be posting more about our journey in the coming weeks and months. Please stay tuned, and leave a comment so I know what you think.

The value of an Intranet.

On November 30th, we launched a new Intranet for Vancity staff. It was an initiative we started a year and a half earlier, and some people on my team had been talking about this upgrade for three years.

Vancity Intranet Screenshot

In the summer of 2009, with our partners in IT, we selected a local web and Intranet design and development company, Habañero as our partner to build a business case for a new Intranet. In my mind there was one main reason for tossing out our old Intranet and launching a new one: Improved ability to find information and people.

My boss refers to our old Intranet as “arthritic”, and it definitely kept our employees from finding the information they needed to do their job, as well as subject matter experts across the organization, quickly and easily.

Habeñero has been a great partner for us, and I was very happy to be able to work with them. They have written a case study of the project where you can see more details about the project as well as some screenshots.

In our research for the business case, we identified front-line staff as the main priority for our work. Their need to get information quickly so they can serve our members more accurately and efficiently trumped all other reasons for funding this work. We kept that priority in mind through every decision and challenge.

This was not a member-facing project, and yet our members were the main driver of this work. And search was the main way to achieve this – on Intranets many times employees know the document or policy or procedure they need to get their job done, and search for it directly. Search is King.

We also completely trashed our old navigation structure, which was convenient for content publishers, but not for content consumers. If every time someone publishes content it takes them a couple of extra minutes to decide where to put it to make it most logically findable, they will make the thousands of times people need to find that content easier and quicker. The business rationale is self-explanatory.

So we focused the navigation on serving members and everything else was secondary. Information that was scattered through different sections of the old Intranet was brought together in a single section designed specifically for front-line staff. We called that section simply Serving Members and it contains product information, tools, policies and procedures, rates, in-market information, and more.

We also needed to make it easier to find subject matter experts throughout the organization. Lets say a member in a branch has a question that is slightly esoteric or unusual, the employee helping them needs to be able to easily find a product manager in head office who might know the answer without wasting a lot of the employee’s or the member’s time.

For me, an exciting opportunity to further this goal was introducing social media within the organization so that the network of employees could be strengthened and enabled to connect in new ways.

When we wrote the business case, there wasn’t a tremendous interest in the social media aspects of an Intranet, so we took a bit of a Trojan Horse approach. We’d create the business case and build the new Intranet to achieve the business goals without compromise (finding information and subject matter experts quickly), and also quietly build in social media for employees knowing that this was something we needed to provide to the organization, even though most weren’t (yet) asking for it.

For an organization like Vancity that has a mission and attracts employees who care about that mission, creating a space where employees have voice, can share stories and comment on each other’s work is critical. It recognizes that our staff need to connect to do their work better and feel greater affinity for their employer. It is also a strong signal that we are modernizing our approach, and staying current.

Our partners in IT selected Microsoft SharePoint as our platform, which at first caused me some angst. The open source, Mac-tastic guy I am just didn’t buy it. But it wasn’t my call so I accepted it and moved on. But in the intervening months SharePoint 2010 was released and it is a major step forward. Microsoft has embraced social media in this new release and it is surprisingly good. We were lucky to be able to launch on this brand new platform so we don’t have to worry about an upgrade for a while, and we get all the new toys and bells and whistles.

And in the months of working to launch the Portal, a nice shift took place. People in the organization have become more open to, and even excited about, the social media features of the Intranet. It has gone mainstream. The My Site feature, like a LinkedIn or Facebook profile page for every staff member, has been widely embraced.

So our open approach to social media has paid off. Almost every page allows commenting, rating and tagging. We wrote good, simple community guidelines for our employees, and focused on launch adoption (including a kick-ass promotional video for employees by Vancouver-based Giant Ant) to prepare people for what was to come. It has been a major change, and one that will be good for the culture. Introducing social media within the organization will have profound implications on our ability to harness social media and engagement marketing as an organization, I am sure.

And a great thing happened starting on day one. People across the company started commenting on stories. Employees whom I’m sure have never commented on a blog before are commenting on articles about things happening at Vancity, and content authors are responding. As Jane in our Communications team says, “We’ve gone two-way, baby!”

There’s lots left to do. Some things we just got wrong and need to fix, some enhancements we couldn’t do for launch, a strong focus on governance. But it feels great to have it out there. It looks great, and provides a whole new way we as employees can get vital information we need to do our jobs, connect, collaborate and learn about each other and the organization we work for.