Mireille Ryan: You need business experts, not social media experts.

By Roger Christie

Mireille Ryan is CEO of the Social Media Marketing Institute and Founder of Social Intelligence HQ. We caught up to discuss one of the key challenges facing many organisations: finding, securing and retaining social talent. As Mireille advises a range of boards and executive teams, our conversation focused on why organisations should stop hiring for today, and consider the business needs of tomorrow.

Roger Christie (RC): Thanks for taking the time to meet, Mireille. You’ve just established Social Intelligence HQ — congratulations. Firstly, can you explain just what ‘social intelligence’ is?

Mireille Ryan (MR): Social media intelligence is harnessing the power of social media listening tools to monitor social media conversations and extract data points and insights to turn them into meaningful business strategy and decisions.

RC: Right. And you mentioned recently some McKinsey research emphasising ‘social intelligence literacy’ as a critical asset among boards and executives. Where do you think Australian boards and executive teams are placed in terms of their current social intelligence literacy levels?

MR: I think some boards and teams are doing a great job, but a lot of boards and executives don’t understand the power of social media intelligence yet. It is still a relatively new space and in order to stay competitive, C-suite executives will need to be educated. That is part of the reason I started the Social Media Marketing Institute and Social Intelligence HQ — to help bridge that gap.

RC: What practical steps can business leaders take to build their social intelligence literacy, and familiarity with the many facets of ‘social’ generally? Where should they start?

MR: If they are not already using it, I think the C-suite need to start with using social media themselves. Using social media to develop your own personal brand is critical these days. It is not about what you ate for dinner, but sharing your thought leadership on topics within your industry. We have seen people like Richard Branson harness social media to educate and communicate with his followers and in turn build brand loyalty and drive sales into his businesses. Once C-suite executives can grasp the potential for their own brand on social media, they will start to understand its power for their business.

RC: Why are business leaders yet to take ‘social’ seriously? What are the factors at play here?

MR: There has never been a time in our history where we have been able to access so much information about our customers and understand how they engage at each stage of the sales funnel. The tools we have access to are amazing. However, many people still get caught up on the channels themselves rather than the business outcomes they’re using those channels to work towards.

I think there has been a disconnect between the business outcomes leaders are wanting to achieve and the metrics social media managers are reporting. Leaders are looking for return on investment and a connection with business objectives and if social media managers are reporting likes, comments, reach — vanity metrics — business leaders cannot see ROI. And when you can’t measure the impact of social in the same way as other business activities, it’s naturally difficult to understand it’s value and contribution compared with other business activities. This is where business leaders get stuck.

My advice to all businesses: don’t talk about social media in isolation. Talk about business outcomes and how social media is helping achieve these outcomes.

RC: Why do you think this confusion or misguided focus exists? Do business leaders lack knowledge or clarity around the role of social in their organisations, or are practitioners failing to communicate the value of social back up the chain?

MR: I don’t think there’s one single source for this confusion. Like the McKinsey research, I’m sure businesses would benefit if leaders had a better grasp of the different aspects of social, like social media intelligence. But I think there is a sort of hidden cycle going on under the surface in most organisations. Because most business leaders don’t understand the process and value of social media intelligence, or social in general, they focus on what is accessible and understandable to them — social media channels. And if this is what they believe needs attention and resourcing in their business, they prioritise hiring people who can manage those channels.

And these people are often technology and channel specialists with limited business experience. They spend their time focusing on the channels and changes themselves — those aspects business leaders don’t necessarily understand or value — and don’t have the skills to communicate the role social should play across their organisation or how to engage stakeholders across different business functions. Without being able to prove their value to the business in the same way others are measured, these specialists lose credibility and trust with business leaders, as does social generally.

RC: Are organisations hiring the wrong people, in which case? Are they bringing the wrong skills into their business to have any real business impact?

MR: I think there’s a mismatch between talent and potential. As an industry, social media has a bit of an identity crisis where it isn’t always taken seriously among business leaders. Think of accounting as an industry — you have CAs and CPAs, and that accreditation is known and sought out by businesses. There is nothing like that in social media space and that creates real credibility issues. This is one of the reasons why I established Social Media Marketing Institute — to bridge this disconnect.

We want to educate people not just in social media but also in business acumen. We have a lot of talented people out there who understand the technology without understanding the business context. There needs to be a desire to continually educate and upskill. Unless those in social roles take this opportunity seriously and want to be involved in shaping business strategy, the industry will continue to serve a channel or execution purpose.

RC: What’s your advice then for both sides of this dynamic? What should practitioners who find themselves in these roles do to ensure their leaders see value? And what do leaders need to consider to get the most from their social investments?

MR: As a practitioner, you need to uncover your passion. I am so optimistic about the opportunities social specialists have — they can progress faster than any other role in business at the moment if they want to. But they need to find that passion to change the way their business leaders and organisations generally view ‘social’. They need to show there’s more to social than social media channels. They also need to demonstrate to senior leaders all that is involved in social media marketing and why they need to listen. These conversations may be difficult.

And that takes resilience. You need to be thick-skinned and willing to keep making your case up the chain. You have to learn how to communicate up if you want respect in return.

For business leaders, you can’t hire for today. You need to start looking ahead — what are the business needs of tomorrow? Like harnessing the power of social media intelligence — understand the value social media intelligence can bring to your business when trying to make data-driven decisions.

Start hiring different types of people. You need social people with business acumen to connect the dots from the business perspective, but then you also need people with technical expertise to execute within functional areas. You stop looking for social channel experts and start looking for people that will help meet business goals. Customer service is the first business function we’re seeing take this approach to hiring. They are combining the social media team with customer service to work together, and this leads to better outcomes for the business.

For both groups, outline exactly what it is the organisation is trying to achieve — the 2–3 key metrics of most importance — and then work out how social can play a role meeting those goals, and how that contribution can be measured.

RC: Thanks so much for your time and insights, Mireille.

This was the fourth interview in Propel’s Expert Series featuring Mireille Ryan — CEO of the Social Media Marketing Institute & Founder of Social Intelligence HQ. Mireille can be found on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn if you would like to follow up any topics raised in her 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.