Gerry Avalos: Negotiating social’s contribution to business

By Roger Christie

Gerry Avalos is the Social Media Lead at IAG. As someone who has come down a non-traditional career path to lead a team at the major insurer, Gerry understands the delicate negotiations taking place in most organisations around social’s contribution to business measurement, performance and change. He shares his personal experience of navigating that journey today.

Roger Christie (RC): Thanks for speaking with me today, Gerry, and sharing your perspective as someone who has gone down a different route to most social leads in this market. How did you first get into the social space? What was your career path to get to where you are today?

Gerry Avalos (GA): It’s been a very interesting ride. If I went back in time and told my younger self that I would be working in social media, I would not have believed it. I have worked in comms areas in the past, but my career had been much more within the digital space. I took a bit of a chance when I made the move into social, but I found that a lot of the skills I had learned during my career in digital were very applicable to the world of social.

RC: Like your own career, the financial services industry continues to go through stages of change, brought about by the lovely buzz phrases of ‘digital disruption’ and ‘customer-centric innovation’. Given your context, do you look on those changes with a sense of opportunity and optimism?

GA: Absolutely, I mean, buzzwords can ring hollow if that’s the way they are treated. But the reality is that buzzwords come from trends and customer needs.

Organisations are slowly realising that social is here to stay. You need to be where your customers are and, with a few exceptions, everyone is on social. If you look at the stats, the largest amount of time that people spend on their devices is on social. This means untapped opportunities to communicate with your customers and — more importantly — to listen to what they have to say.

RC: And what about measurement — with opportunities like these, how should organisations be measuring success in this space?

GA: Success in social means different things for different organisations. I believe that the level of maturity within the organisation also has an impact on measures of success. What do I mean by this? Well, if an organisation is only getting started on their social journey, measures should be around community, reach and audience growth. If an organisation is further down the path, then ROI becomes more important, and you would measure different initiatives based on the individual business objectives. For example, customer service SLAs (service level agreements) versus sales for a campaign versus engagement for evergreen content.

While I would encourage organisations to consider what’s important to the business and work towards measuring those aspects in social, you can’t expect an organisation to simply go from zero to mature. Build familiarity around social first, and then increase the sophistication of your measures so the organisation can see what’s possible.

RC: I imagine stakeholder engagement, education and collaboration are all keys to building confidence in social across a large business. What would you say are the three most important steps to getting stakeholder buy-in for those working in complex stakeholder environments?

GA: It’s definitely top of the list, particularly for an area that doesn’t have high levels of expertise throughout the business. Education is key. It’s also important to communicate a lot: achievements; learnings; successes — the lot. Getting stakeholders from different areas to be hands on in social really helps. Sometimes the best ideas come from areas of the business that have nothing to do with social. This gets people to buy in and embrace change.

RC: Getting others familiar and bought in is a huge challenge in many organisations as ‘specialist teams’ try to lock down and control activities. Couldn’t agree more.

Along those lines, from your perspective, where should social sit within such large organisations? Does it need a single functional owner, like Marketing or Service, or is it more about all business functions having a level of social capabilities?

GA: This is a tricky question. And the answer is invariably…wait for it…it depends. I’m talking about maturity again, but it’s true that a more mature organisation would have a hub and spoke, or even matrix approach, whereas an organisation starting on the journey would probably benefit from a centralised model.

Historically marketing departments have been the first ones to jump into social which is great, but more often than not the paradigm shifts that are required just don’t happen from within an established area. To start with, I believe you do need a centralised team that manages the whole thing and has final accountability for social. As organisations mature, the ideal would be to grow up and move to a more distributed model to unlock new and full sources of value across the business.

RC: In your opinion, who are the key individuals of most importance to know and support as a social lead? Which ‘advocates’ or sponsors are critical to ensuring an organisation builds its own social capabilities?

GA: Well, you need buy in from the top. There’s not much you can do without a minimum of resourcing, so there needs to be commitment from a headcount perspective, and that comes from those managing budgets.

While hard to achieve, getting buy in from brand, marketing and corporate comms areas is also crucial. Again, this will vary between different organisations. But you basically have to think: where is our progress likely to stall or get stuck, and why? Get these stakeholders on board from the beginning, and explain the benefits clearly. It’s important for people to feel you are doing this with them and not to them.

RC: Appreciate your very practical experience and advice, Gerry.

This was the eighth interview in Propel’s Expert Series featuring Gerry Avalos — Social Lead at IAG. Gerry can be found on LinkedIn if you would like to follow up any topics raised in his interview. The Expert Series will continue soon, and aims to showcase the breadth of business opportunities and value available to organisations by focusing on social capabilities, not social media channels. If you have an interviewee recommendation, please contact our Managing Director, Roger.