At 11:24 p.m. on Feb. 15, 2011, Gloria Huang -- a young social media specialist for the American Red Cross -- dashed off a tweet from what she thought was her personal Twitter account. "Ryan found 2 more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head's Midas Touch beer... When we drink we do it right #gettngslizzerd". When Huang clicked send, the message was instantly pushed out, not to her closest friends, but to every last one of the Red Cross' 268,000 followers. The accidental tweet quickly caught the attention of Twitter nation. Gag tweets with the hashtag #gettngslizzerd splashed across the Twittersphere, leaving the Red Cross to do some virtual triage (which, by the way, they did quite admirably).
While unique in its scope, this blunder isn't exceptional. Social media has grown from a curiosity to an integral piece of corporate strategy in the space of only a few years. Nearly overnight, companies have brought on whole teams of specialists to handle multiplying numbers of social media accounts. From April 2011 to April 2012, total users active in teams on the social media dashboard HootSuite nearly tripled. Large, corporate clients currently have an average of 23 team members each.
At the same time, social media has expanded company-wide. "We see social media not just as a marketing tool," explains Dewayne Hankins, director of new media for the LA Kings NHL team, which has 220,000 Facebook fans and nearly 100,000 Twitter followers. "It's a customer service tool, it's a PR tool, it's a sales tool. Even the guy who does the music during games uses Twitter to get song requests and feedback." Global enterprises now find themselves juggling dozens -- if not hundreds -- of accounts in multiple languages aimed at audiences around the world.
There's more. Social media teams tend to be decentralized -- a motley mix of in-house experts, off-site consultants and international partners. The result: Confusion, rogue tweets and off-message posts are almost inevitable. The worst gaffes live on in social media infamy. In March 2011, Scott Bartosiewicz, an employee of a marketing firm representing Chrysler, inadvertently fired off this message on the Chrysler Twitter account: "I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to fucking drive." Chrysler apologized, Bartosiewicz was fired, but the damage was done.
So is there a way for businesses to avoid a social media meltdown? Well, until recently, not really. Collaboration and security features on social media sites were limited or nonexistent. Interns, CEOs and marketing hacks posted and tweeted willy-nilly in a social media free-for-all. Departments couldn't collaborate. One wrong click could spell a PR crisis. Staying on message was like herding cats.
But, finally, that's changing. Social media companies have recently developed some very serious tools aimed expressly at business collaboration. Behind this sea change is a dawning realization that social media has -- very quickly -- grown up and gone corporate.
New tools promise to restore a semblance of order to sprawling social media departments. Managers can ensure messages are aligned and approved before publication -- and no one drops an F-bomb while on company time. Flexible permissions restrict who can post what to which accounts -- from the CFO right down to the summer intern. Back-end sharing means messages aren't duplicated by different departments. Social media squads can organize organically by department, posting to Twitter, Facebook and other networks as a unit.
And so what? These changes might sound trivial. But collectively they represent a fundamental shift in how social media is being used. The planet's largest companies are integrating Twitter, Facebook and other networks into every aspect of their operations. Tasks relegated just a few years ago to a sole intern are now managed by multi-million-dollar teams. In short, business has gone social. Yes -- Twitter, Facebook and Google+ are still a great way to connect with friends -- to share, celebrate and trade drinking stories. But, in the right hands, they are now an integral part of the bottom line. Companies and managers that find a way to harness social media stand to gain. Those who don't will, in the immortal words of Gloria Huang, get slizzerd.
Ryan Holmes is the CEO of HootSuite, a social media management tool with nearly four million users.
Follow Ryan Holmes on Twitter: www.twitter.com/invoker