Many CFOs and their organizations are ignoring new social-media technologies and networks because they’re “not comfortable with them,” said Cal Slemp, managing director of Protiviti, a consultancy and internal audit firm, speaking on a panel about the risks and rewards of social media at this week’s CFO Rising Conference in Las Vegas.

Other finance chiefs, he said, are letting social-media initiatives “go into skunk works” (projects run by a loosely structured group of people with little funding and less oversight).

CFOs have a plethora of concerns that cause them to resist making a wholehearted, structured commitment to social-media initiatives and investments. There’s the oft-cited difficulty of determining the value of Facebook “likes” (underlined by Facebook’s much-publicized problems with monetizing mobile ads) and the equally problematic worth of a tweet, or a post on Pinterest. At the same time, the work of crafting robust policies and guidelines for the safe use of social media can be daunting. (“Yes, by all means involve legal,” advised Slemp.)

But the panel strongly felt that businesses that hold back are missing an enormous opportunity given the number of potential customers involved in active social networking. According to Edison Research, a market research and polling firm, in 2011 that included 46 million Americans over the age of 12 who checked their social-media sites and services “several times a day,” and the 33% of social-media users who followed a brand on a social network this year (more than double the 16% that did so last year).

However, when organizations dip their toes into the social-media pool “without establishing business requirements or identifying their target markets,” said Slemp, their efforts don’t get the proper funding and don’t achieve good integration with the business’s IT infrastructure. Consequently, the well-known risks of social media — including reputational damage and the inadvertent exposure of critical and private business information — can quickly overwhelm its benefits and any hoped-for return on investment.

Gene Domecus, CFO of Blurb, an online book publisher, agreed, saying it’s “misguided” not to govern a business’s social-media strategy as one would any other business project. “We have a social-media manager,” said Domecus, “whose full-time job is to engage with our customers and build our social-media presence. If you’re not getting more customers [with social media], you’re doing something wrong.

“If you just slap a banner ad on a Facebook page,” he said, “chances are you’re going to be disappointed in the return. As a CFO, I believe it’s shortsighted to regard social-media ROI in a strict dollars spent, dollars retrieved sense. It misses the point. It’s not that I don’t care how much money we spend — I certainly do — but that’s where our audience lives. Social media is about leveraging the like-minded.”

Social media is very much about engagement, which by definition is a two-way street. And the customer side of that street can indeed produce measurable ROI. Darrell Flewell, CFO of Linux Professional Institute, an educational testing and certification firm for the Linux community, pointed to the fact that for years LPI paid to translate its exams into the languages of Linux developers around the world.

Now those translations are performed by the LPI’s community, organized around social media. Consequently, said Flewell, “I haven’t paid a translator in several years.

“But forget about ROI,” he continued. “What about not being able to fill jobs? There’s a lot of competition for new talent. If you decide that your employees won’t be allowed to use Facebook in your organization, well, good luck with that. No one under 60 will want to work for you.

“Your demographic is totally immersed [in] social media. You turn your back on them, you turn your back on opportunity,” he concluded.

What the most effective business users of social media do, Slemp said, is “take a deep breath, establish a common ground between the social-media evangelists and the fearful, and treat social media as a normal project.” That means finding an owner for the initiative, gaining buy-in within the organization, developing goals, assigning responsibilities, establishing controls, developing usage policies, and determining proper investment levels.

“Decisions,” said Slemp, “need to be conscious, not made by default.”

Slemp pointed out that audit teams are beginning to “poke around” in social media. “It’s not super insightful or direct,” he said, “but they’re asking what the business need was. What revenue are you attributing to it? You might decide as a business not to participate, and that’s fine, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t saying things about you. It’s a bad assumption that deciding not to participate in social media means you’re not involved.

“You are.”

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