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The irony of investing in social marketing while blocking your own employees

Social media as a marketing mechanism is clearly hot. I can’t scan my feeds without finding yet another report of yet another study detailing companies’ increased commitment to and investment in social media. Here are just a few:

  • eMarketer reports on an The Aberdeen Group study that found 63% of companies planned to increase their social media marketing budgets in 2009. Twenty-one percent were set to boost their budgets by more than 25%. And worldwide social media advertising was expected to grow 17.3% this year to $2.35 billion.
  • A study from the Association of National Advertisers revealed that 66% of marketers have used social media in some capacity this year, with Facebook being tapped by 74% of them, YouTube by 65%, and Twitter by 63%.
  • Twitter is the social media channel of choice among Fortune 100 companies, according to a Burson-Marsteller study, which found 54% of these organizations active on Twitter, compared with 32% using blogs and 29% with active Facebook fan pages.
  • There is a correlation between financial performance and engagement in social media among the world’s top brands, according to a study conducted by Altimeter Group and WetPaint. Simply stated, socially engaged companies are more financially successful.
  • And most recently, a study from SNCR, Deloitte, and Beeline Labs released just the other day reports that 94% of respondents said that they plan to maintain or increase investment in their online communities. The investment pays off, they said, in word of mouth, customer loyalty, brand awareness, idea generation, and improved quality of customer support.

The fact that businesses are seeing tangible benefits from social media explains why investment continues to rise among most companies, even when budget belts are being tightened. Driving these results is the that comes from real people connecting with each another in spaces where they share mutual interests. Companies are smart enough to know that (according to research) customers want the companies with which they do business should be present in these spaces.

So it is all the more confounding that these very same companies won’t let their own employees engage on these sites.

As reported here and elsewhere, a survey of CIOs found that 54% of companies block all employees from visiting any social sites. It’s deliciously ironic that 54% is exactly the same percentage of Fortune 100 companies that are active on Twitter.

If companies block their employees from engaging, who do they think their fan pages and Twitter accounts are attracting? Think about it. If every company prohibited employees from visiting Facebook, then the only time anybody could visit the company Facebook fan page would be when they’re not at work. Given the hours most companies require of their employees, that’s not a heck of a lot of time to interact with customers.

What’s more, if the fan pages of those 54% of companies are being viewed by employees from the 46% of companies that still allow some kind of access, none of the companies’ employees are able to interact with those visitors. They can’t. They’ve been blocked.

American Airlines announced just the other day that it’s launching BlackAtlas.com, a travel-focused social network for African Americans. According to one report, “The site will feature discussion boards and blogs on which users can share pictures, video and travel stories and tips, along with rating and recommending businesses and travel destinations.”

I don’t know whether American Airlines allows its own employees to visit social sites, but with more than half of companies in the blocking camp, odds are American’s own black employees will be barred from a site where they could interact with BlackAtlas.com members and personify the airline’s culture.

Gartner, in fact, projects that 60% of the Fortune 1000 will host online communities by 2010 so they can gain information from their customer base “which can be used for short-and long-term customer relationships,” according to Garner researcher Adam Sarner.

Employees at more than half of them, though, are not allowed.

Organizations need to think more like Dell, which realized its roadblock to Facebook made no sense when it launched a green initiative on the social networking site so employees could engage and participate.

The presumption of most companies blocking access is that employees are being unproductive, wasting time. In fact, the lines have blurred so much that even an employee spending a few minutes online to take a break from work could wind up having an interaction that benefits the company.

How have your non-work social interactions wound up serving your organization?

Why the 54% of companies blocking access to social media should unblock

At least 10 of my colleagues have alerted me to a study released yesterday by Robert Half Technology, in which 54% of the sample of 1,400 CIOs of companies with 100 or more employees block employees from accessing any social media at work.

Mashable points out the Robert Half study is consistent with other reports. The trend is gaining momentum.

I even received an email today from a communicator who observed that she received a security notice that access to Stop Blocking was blocked at her organization. Right. God forbid anybody should be able to explore the arguments against this inane and counterproductive practice.

Given the publicity the Half study is getting, it’s worth reiterating the key arguments against blocking.

Well-communicated and consistently enforced policies will deal with most issues. The number of companies blocking access to social media sites is roughly on par with the number of companies without social media policies. Isn’t it possible that employees who knew what the rules were might actually follow them? Especially if they knew there were real and serious consequences for failing to do so?

Access to social media improves productivity. According to Dave Willmer, executive director of Robert Half Technology, “Using social networking sites may divert employees’ attention away from more pressing priorities, so it’s understandable that some companies limit access.” But multiple studies prove exactly the opposite.

Productivity concerns are based on fatally flawed assumptions. First, there is research to suggest that every hour an employee spends at work on non-work-related websites is compensated for by an hour spent away from work on work-related activities. Do you check your work-related email on your mobile phone before you even get out of bed? Most knowledge workers say they do. Second, there are work-related benefits to social media activities, including collaboration, mindsharing and professional social networking amongst employees, affiliates and partners, according to David Lavenda of WorkLight (drawing on results from a Gartner study).

Employees don’t need your network. I can access any social network I like on my iPhone and my Palm Pre. I have a laptop with built-in access to the Sprint network that gets me on any site I want. Employees can (and do) bring these tools to the workplace. Your blocks have no impact. Employees can still get to Facebook all they want.

Who died and put CIOs in charge of worker productivity anyway? I’m not sure when supervisors and HR abdicated this responsibility to IT, but IT is simply not qualified to address employee productivity.

Blocking kills engagement. There are plenty of studies that tie high levels of worker engagement to increased growth and profitability. Trust is a pillar of engagement. So what happens to engagement when all employees get the same message, “We don’t trust any of you, not a single damn one of you, as far as we can throw you, so we’re blocking all of you”? Bye bye, engagement.

Access to social media is not an automatic invitation to viruses and malware. Those companies that do permit employee access have found ways to protect their networks. For many of the companies blocking access based on the fear of infection, it’s just easier to block than to find ways to protect the network while providing access. Laziness is not an excuse for blocking.

Millenials will not work for companies that block. These workers — the ones you need to hire to replace the retiring boomers — are networked 24/7 and expect the company to accommodate them. Many simply won’t work for companies that block access, which means you’re left to hire your second and third choices. Is mediocrity actually a hiring goal in your organization?

Bandwidth is a bogus issue. Bandwidth is the paper of the digital era. Can you imagine a company 25 years ago telling workers, “We’d love to get memos and publications to you, but we don’t have enough paper”? The very notion is absurd. They’d buy more paper. Companies pinching pennies on bandwidth are doing themselves a disservice in many more ways than one.

Please suport the Stop Blocking initiative. Contribute research you’re aware of to the wiki. Share how your access to social networks and other web content has benefitted you at work. Share how blocking has restricted your ability to be as effective as possible at work. Link to Stop Blocking; feel fee to use the Stop Blocking badges on your blog or site. We must get the word out that blocking is a counterproductive, knee-jerk practice that must be stopped for the sake of the very companies that are implementing it.

Revitalizing StopBlocking.org

With only so many hours in a day, I have to choose where to commit my energy. As a result, some projects take a back seat. But after pondering two sets of data, I’m recommitting myself to my Stop Blocking initiative.

But it won’t do any good if I do this by myself. I need help to keep the wiki updated.

Bear with me, and I’ll explain all.

First, the data

By themselves, both of these sets of data are intriguing. Juxtaposed, however, they’re startling. One one side, you have organizations warming up to social media, particularly as a channel for marketing. On the flip side, you have a surge in companies that are blocking their own employees’ access to social media.

Add to the mix the fact that internal social media — also known by names like enterprise web 2.0 — is gathering steam, and you’re faced with a genuine conundrum.

Let’s review these stats, starting with business embracing social media. According to Equation Research’s “2009 Marketing Industry Trends Report,” reported by eMarketer, 59% of brand marketers use social media, and the ranks will swell to 82% in the next year. A mere 13% claim they have no plans at all to jump into social media marketing.

This data reinforces the results of other research, like a study from the Association of National Advertisers that shows 66% of marketers have used social media in one form or another this year.

Returning to the Equation Research study, the results indicate that only 7% of companies don’t see social media as a good use of employee time.

Clearly, the companies surveyed by Equation weren’t the same ones analyzed by ScanSafe, which earned a boatload of free publicity when it released a study reporting a 20% increase in the number of companies blocking access to social media in the last six months.

So, companies want to market through social media but they don’t want their employees using it? First, that means employees will have to go home to participate in their own companies’ efforts. And second, if everybody follows suit, the total pool of consumers engaged in those marketing efforts will plummet.

But it gets more interesting when you look at the results of the Nielsen Norman Group‘s recent study, “Enterprise 2.0: Social Software on Intranets: A Report From the Front Lines of Enterprise Social Software Projects.” This in-depth research revealed that social software adopted by companies that produce significant results are nearly always introduced as under-the-radar grass-roots initiatives by front-line employees. That is, once social software efforts prove their worth, the powers that be push their implementation.

Let’s be clear: Employees who are not permitted to innovate with social media will not be able to introduce beneficial tools to the enterprise, ultimately costing these companies in untold ways, from innovation and collaboration to increased market share and profitability.

Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman group nails it:

Social software is a trend that cannot be ignored. It is bringing about fundamental change to the way people expect to communicate with one another. Companies cannot use social tools with their customers and not also allow their employees to utilize them.

Yet, according to the data, that is exactly what’s happening.

So let’s summarize:

  • Companies want to market using social media.
  • Companies rely on employee grassroots efforts to identify social media that will pay off internally.
  • Companies are blocking employee access to social media.

Is it just me or does the math just not add up here?

And now, the call to action

I started Stop Blocking a few years back out of frustration over the knee-jerk reasons company denied employees access to social media. The blog was meant to provide updates on research and news items related to the topic. The wiki was designed to provide an archive of resources people can use to make a case against blocking in their organizations.

There has been plenty of evidence to add to the wiki which I have neglected. For example, there’s the University of Melbourne study proving a 9% productivity increase among workers allowed to use social media at work. Or there’s the BizInfo/Blackline study that revealed 65.3% of business professionals claiming that web 2.0 services help them to achieve business objectives and 78.1% who believe social media increases collaboration among employees.

I’ve written extensively about this elsewhere on this blog and over at StopBlocking.org. I’ve catalogued and attempted to debunk the reasons companies implement blocks. None of them hold water in light of the evidence of the real business benefits that accrue to organizations that prudently allow their employees access to the Net. I could go review all of these, but this post is already running long enough.

I will add the latest studies to the wiki. I will cross-posting this item to the blog. And I am committed to getting back to maintaining the blog. But I need your help.

What can you do?

  • Send me resources — When you find a study or survey that either related to employee use of social media, blocking access, corporate policies or anything else that helps build the body of knowledge, please send it my way.
  • Link to StopBlocking.org — The only way this initiative will build into a movement is if it’s visible.
  • Put the badge on your blog — There are several versions available.
  • Share success stories — Blog about the benefits of access to an open web in the workplace, and let me know so I can link to your posts.
  • Make the case — Use the information at StopBlocking.org to make a solid business case for open access in your organization.

Improved engagement, business results from internal Web 2.0

The value of enabling social media for employees, both inside and outside the firewall, keeps getting reinforced by study after study, yet organizations continue to block access to external sources while resisting internal implementation citing excuses ranging from bandwidth and storage limitations to fears of diminished worker productivity.

Aberdeen Group has produced another study the naysayers can ignore. Focused on talent management and employee engagement, the research brief links the use of Web 2.0 to higher levels of engagement and better company performance.

The linkage doesn’t prove that Web 2.0 was directly responsible for producing these results, however. The fact that “best-in-class” organizations are more likely to use blogs, wikis, and social networking tools than other companies could just mean that best-in-class organizations are generally more inclined to trust employees and adopt new tools they can use to collaborate and share knowledge and information.

Still, companies looking to boost engagement and improve recruiting and retention can certainly learn a lesson by studying the behaviors of those organizations that are outperforming them. According to Aberdeen’s brief, titled Web 2.0, Talent Management, and Employee Engagement (a PDF file):

  • 52% of organizations that adopt blogs, wikis, and social networking tools (among others) achieved best-in-class performance levels compared to 5% for those that didn’t. (Note to Aberdeen: I would have liked a definition of “best-in-class.”)
  • The same tools were used within organizations that achieved an 18% year-over-year improvement in employee engagement. Companies that didn’t use these tools grew engagement by a mere 1%.

Other highlights from the report — which aggregate findings from several Aberdeen studies — focus on…

Recruiting — A 45% increase in spending on “software that links to networking site (e.g. Facebook or LinkedIn) or other communities of practice” as part of the recruiting process will increase internal recruiters’ ability to connect with potential recruits. These tools also let employees post messages to “lend a voice to the market on the work culture at a particular company.”

Onboarding — Social networking is being used to connect newly-hired employees with mentors and coaches as well as build relationships with other employees. “In addition,” the brief notes, “blogs and wikis are also used as a means for a new employee to provide content/commentary on a topic at which he/she is an expert where others within the organization are struggling.”

Learning and development — About a third of organizations surveyed for an upcoming study from Aberdeen said the biggest growth in learning and development over the next year will come from “informal learning.” The investment these companies will make in blogs, social networks, and communities will “stimulate peer-to-peer learning and ideation, as well as facilitate communities of practice in which organizations can leverage the collective knowledge of their employees.”

With the introduction of Yammer, Present.ly, and other internal-facing presence tools, it’s too bad the Aberdeen report was focused exclusively on the first wave of social media tools. But the mere fact that Aberdeen joins companies like McKinsey, Gartner, and Forrester in endorsing these tools as drivers of business improvement can only help those trying to make the case for internal social media with those inclined to resist it.

Cut off nose. Spite face.

I run a side business that offers extremely in-depth professional development online. I use a blogging platform for the business, partly because it’s so easy to add multimedia elements to the courses. I incorporate videos and screencasts, along with a fair amount of audio content, all of which supplements the text and breaks up the chore of too much reading online.

In order to make the multimedia content available without killing my small server, I host it on a multimedia hosting site. The one I use is LibSyn — Liberated Syndication — which is primarily a podcast hosting service. A number of companies, it turns out, block access to LibSyn. I guess they don’t want employees listening to podcasts. I can think of a number of issues that might lead companies to block sites like this, none of them insurmountable.

But here’s the rub: Companies pay the registration fee for employees to participate in these professional development sessions, then block access to the service that delivers the audio and video files, keeping employees from taking advantage of the workshop they paid for. As a result, employees have to go home to participate in the workshop, a work-related activity they undertake on their own time. Then they get slammed for doing non-work-related activities at work.

The irony is so thick you can cut it with a knife.

A tale of Internet blockage

Bryan Person sends along a link to “Jobacle,” a blog by “Andrew G.R.” The blog is subtitled, “Make Work Better,” and the post is Andrew’s tale of being blocked from much of the Net — “any file sharing in iTunes, turned off IMing, and made it impossible to download any podcasts” — despite the fact that he works for a production company where the Net is an integral part of the job:

We produce promos, commercials, television shows, print ads, and just about any other creative task one could think of in the media realm. Sites like MySpace (this I could care less about) and YouTube have been blocked completely. This has drastically change our productivity and has obviously put a major damper on moral; especially since there was no abuse of the Internet privilege. Furthermore, it has slowed workflow, caused more headaches, and wasted more time and effort than it seems worth. We work primarily with outside clients that are all using these tools- yes tools- to get their job done. Just this afternoon I had to shrug my shoulders while an irate producer watched me NOT retrieve the voice over reads (as I sat on the phone with the voice talent in Toronto try to come up with a work around) all because I couldn’t hop onto his FTP site and download the audio files I needed to continue my job. Needless to say we all had to jump through several hoops to complete the task.

Patently ridiculous, yet it has become the rule, it seems, instead of the exception.

BusinessWeek on blocking

Stephen Baker — one of the BusinessWeek writers who authored the turning-point article on blogging back in 2005 — has a post on the Blogspotting blog he shares with Heather Green about a discussion on the BW site about whether companies should prevent employees from recreational surfing. The key sentence:

For me, the question boils down to this: Does a company evaluate workers by their performance? If so, it shouldn’t need to monitor their behavior.

The debate is taking place here.

Better graphics needed

I have never claimed to be a designer. If you have design chops and would like to contribute to this effort, I’m interested in everything from better templates for the blog and wiki to better graphics for the badges offered through this site. Just leave a comment here or email me to volunteer your services.

Welcome to the campaign

For years, I have opposed the business practice of blocking employee access to online content. Any online content. It’s not that I believe employees should spend worktime perusing Web porn. But I don’t believe that blocking access for any and every employee is the best way to address abuse. Additionally, a lot of the content companies are blocking — Facebook is a good example — can actually produce business value.

For some time, I’ve been thinking of launching a grassroots campaign in support of open employee access to the web. This blog, and its related wiki, represent the foundation of that campaign. It is based on the following core beliefs:

  • Employees should be treated with trust. Trust builds commitment, which leads to engagement. It is nearly impossible to build a highly engaged workforce when the message is clear: “We don’t trust any of you as far as we can throw you.”
  • Recruiting the best and brightest from the generation just entering the workforce will be easier if they can use the communication tools they have grown up using. With all other factors being equal, prospects will go to work for the company that embraces social media, not the one that blocks access to it.
  • Companies should employ management by exception: Supervisors should be trained to identify individual employee abuse and then deal with it.
  • Most employees will not risk their jobs to engage online in non-work-related activities. If they spend an hour reading entertainment-focused blogs, they will either stay an hour late (or come in early) to ensure their work is done, or they will do the work at home.
  • There is untold wealth in much of the online content companies choose to block. In addition, the use of blocking software routinely blocks access to business-related content.

It is my hope that this blog and wiki will serve as a resource to help organizations make informed, rather than knee-jerk, decisions about providing online access to employees. You can help in a number of ways.

First, you can grab one of the graphics and include it — with a link to this blog — on your blog.

Second, you can contribute your thoughts and resources to the wiki.

Third, you can subscribe to this blog and comment on posts.

Thanks for your support and contributions. If this effort results in a single company deciding not to block web content, I will consider it a success.