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Corporate Social Media Usage: No one really knows how and we're all in the same boat.

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The Social Media Influence Conference, London 2010

LONDON "Authentic voice" and "customer dialogue" were the buzzwords as 400 corporate marketing, agency creative and other "experts" gathered at the Grosvenor Sq. Marriott for a day-long social media conference in London. Many presenters though fell short of the mark, regaling the audience with a combination of "aren't we creative" or "internal battles with finance" war stories. It was a pleasant day with many ideas and lacked the substance corporate marketing participants could bring back to their company, beyond saying, "well at least we're no worse off than everyone else."

What seemed odd was the clear advertising agency and corporate marketing focus. By most measures this felt like the fox being let loose in the hen house as these would also seem to be the natural enemies of social media because it is the biggest threat to both their bottom line and internal empires.

Cards were held close to the chest, which also is an anathema of the Web and information age where knowledge is shared freely and openly to build interest, then up-sold from an expert position. In an environment where many businesses claim to use digital media to grow sales, there was little emphasis on ROI or integrating digital media within traditional marketing functions.

While brands such as Starbucks, Pepsi, London Olympics 2012 and Dell were on the keynote podium, few were willing to delve beyond surface issues and into those many were there to discuss and/or gather information on: how does one integrate digital media into a broader marketing strategy and what are the real results in terms of sales and profits?

Too, missing entirely from the programme was anyone representing the direct sales and marketing industry which lives or dies by how effectively its integrated campaigns cause the telephone to ring, web orders to be taken and sales driven.

The panels in Track 1 seemed filled with a sort of "in-crowd" intent on trying to impress with their expertise. At one point, two PR executives engaged in such a spectacularly bizarre on-stage war story dialogue that the assembled 200 or so in the room at first were shocked, then felt like interlopers and then simply used it as an opportunity to catch up on e-mail.

Whilst the roster of companies representatives present included UK and EU giants: Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Santander and others, informal, off-the-record discussions with corporate representatives saw them mostly confused, tired of being sold to and, at the end of the day, glad to see that everyone else seemed to be in the same boat.

Cardiff University's graduate business professor Dr. Kelly Page gave an Ignite! presentation last year entitled: "Just because I can drive a car, that does not make me an auto mechanic." Her prophetic words about calling yourself a social media expert because you have a lot of followers on Twitter did not land on the assembled crowd and she could have given the same speech here.

B. Bonin Bough of Pepsi gave the best keynote, using Gatorade's Mission Control to understand the dialogue going on about the brand and trying to determine both how to move it and what in the social media world is real. Then again, every Pepsi presentation I have ever heard has been filled with energy, buzz and excitement. He even gave insights to the Coke representative from the stage because their traditional "we have nothing to fear from you" stance is part of their corporate ethos.

Starbucks's Alexandra Wheeler and Alex Balfour of London 2012 mailed their creative presentations in and gave absolutely nothing away. When this reporter asked Alexandra about ROI, even after stating one social media promotion "brought 1 million visitors to Starbucks stores," the presenter when pressed to answer if that represented growth in sales per store said "that's proprietary information."

Then why bring it up? Yes, I too was choked up by Starbucks's "All You Need Is Love" global sing-along and yet kept asking how does that fit into a social media strategy beyond some brand manager at the end of the year pointing and saying "look how we used social media" without ever being questioned about sales results or financial impact?

The questions I was left with at the end of the day:

How advertising agencies, which for 50-years have built their reputation on great creativity and selling that creativity on ever diminishing television for a cut, can now whirl on a dime and be in favour of a medium that is their biggest threat?

How can any CEO can trust a consumer packaged goods-trained brand manager who has a cozy relationship with that agency to give them real, integrated social media since it could mean a cut in his/her budget?

What incentive does a brand manager CMO have to do anything beyond flash when conferences like this seem to mostly reward flash over substance?

Whaaaat?

OK, maybe I am being too harsh. The organisers did very well to bring everyone together. There was a time when leaving any conference with 1-2 good ideas was about the best one could expect. And these economic times demand more beyond a new plan or flashy advert.

Focused digital media can drive sales, affect client loyalty and help manage corporate reputations. After a day with the leading lights of this industry with vastly mixed self-preservation reasons for being there, this reporter is just not sure this crowd can achieve enough real results to make the C-Ring happy or turn the tide.

It's been pretty much the same throughout the last decade. As tides floe, people attempt to change without really changing. Rising with the tide, executives became e-business, e-commerce, executive coach, change management... now digital media leaders.

All of these titles need to be replaced with solid results. If it does not grow the business, it will not get done and those seemingly endless marketing and advertising budgets will be justifiably attacked.

Everything else is just arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.