09/05/2013 12:09 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2013

The Optimal Social Strategy: Leveraging Content to Drive Business Results

Content is king. This phrase gets thrown around a lot, and it's no surprise why. Content is being created, consumed and shared at an unprecedented scale. At a recent industry event, I was afforded the opportunity to engage with marketing leaders about the role that content plays in the digital world. It was energizing to hear about the many innovative ways in which leading brands from around the world are leveraging content to cultivate customer loyalty and deliver substantial business results.

Many of the discussions centered around how brands are using social channels to drive content and transform their companies from traditional businesses to social businesses. Many of you might be thinking, "What is a social business?" MIT's Sloan School of Management defines social business as "activities that use social media, social software, and social networks to enable more efficient, more effective, mutually useful connections among people, information and assets."

In other words, social businesses use social channels to share content, spur ideation and encourage communication that helps to inform subsequent business decisions. Social business strategies help brands to engage with their audience in relevant ways while also capitalizing on innovative ideas from employees, customers and the broader community. When put into action, social business programs can drive business decisions across the company.

You might ask, "If I already have a social media strategy, does that make my business a social business?" The short answer is no. Fundamentally, social media tools push out content and conversations on networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+. Social business strategies employ these tools to serve a more advanced purpose: to fundamentally transform how a business engages with its customers, with the goal of producing long-lasting, mutually beneficial connections.

So how do you transform your business into a social business? At the event, we heard from brands that are at the forefront of social business innovation. Todd Wilms, Head of Social Business Strategy at SAP, in his session shared some best practices for using social channels to elevate content and evolve a traditional business into a social business. Below are the main points I took away.

Make sure your social media and marketing strategies are consistent and beneficial -- to you and your customers

Some companies have a habit of allowing -- or even encouraging -- their departments and campaigns to function in silos. In those instances, marketing activity is completely separate from PR activity, which is completely uninformed about social media activity, and so on. This should not be the case. A successful social business has uniform direction across all departments and a strategy that meets business needs as well as customer expectations. Business needs are easy to identify; find ways to keep the customer happy enough to purchase and loyal enough to purchase again. It's trickier to nail down customer expectations, and this is where a social business has an advantage. Internally, a social business can use social technologies to open lines of communication and crowdsource ideas. Externally, a social business can capitalize on social media to identify customer priorities. After the the business gains an understanding of its customers' needs and has mined internally for practical ideas, it can then leverage social channels to promote content that highlights its efforts. Letting your customers know that you are working to meet their needs is a great way to build trust in your brand.

Don't Swim Against Company Culture

Transforming from a traditional business into a social business does not require that you reinvent your company goals or direction. Many companies make the mistake of using social tools to portray themselves in an entirely new light, which can lead to mixed and inauthentic messages. Instead, identify what your company does well and use social tools to amplify those things. For instance, if you own a chain of grocery stores, your social channels are a great place to publish recipes and dinner planning tips. Or, if your company provides an essential content marketing platform, you could use your blog to publish content marketing best practices or handy tips for search marketing. View your social channels as a resource hub for your customers and produce content that will be the most useful for them.

Learn From The Leaders

There are a few businesses that are leading the pack with their social strategy. Starbucks, for example, initially implemented its social business strategy to get direct customer feedback at scale. They expected to receive suggestions directly related to their products -- perhaps recommendations to produce more pumpkin-flavored drinks in October or to honor all traditions during the holiday season. However, after opening their social channels, Starbucks received more than 157,000 ideas that ranged from campaigns to stop human tracking and sex slavery to promoting water resourcing around the globe. The company was then able to develop a new concept of their customers' expectations and put plans in place to meet those expectations. Starbucks used its social channels to produce content that promoted the ways in which they were working to fulfill customers requests, improving brand perception in the process.

There are countless ways to make the most of social media for your business. Unfortunately, recycling messaging on social media channels is not the way to go about it. In order to elevate basic social strategies, companies need to ensure that content on social platforms echos the company's messaging and mission, helps meet business goals, and aligns with company culture. When in doubt, look to social business leaders for examples of how to use social channels to meet and exceed customer expectations.

This post has been updated since its original publication. A quote belonging to MIT's Sloan School of Management was incorrectly attributed to Todd Wilms.