By Jemima Gibbons, Social Media Strategist, AAB Engage

Two years ago I wrote a book looking at the impact of social media on business. The book was called Monkeys with Typewriters as a tongue-in-cheek reference to that old theory of probability: if you put infinite monkeys in a room with infinite typewriters, eventually one of them will produce a work of Shakespeare. Of course, I think social media is capable of far more than Shakespeare!

For the book, I interviewed more than 50 thought leaders in the UK, US and Europe, and pulled out six emergent behaviours or trends that represented the impact of the social web on business life. These trends are already happening, and set to get bigger; especially in the current economic climate where we’re being forced to think in new, more innovative ways.

Here are the six trends, with some real-life business examples. There may be small changes and tweaks you could make to your business operations now which would have maximum impact down the line:

Trend 1: Respect

When people started using Twitter to express disgust at the News of The World hacking scandal back in July, it wasn’t long before American journalists were talking about a “British Spring”. We may have laughed at the American idea of us poor, downtrodden Brits rising up against our oppressors, but there was something significant in the way that the Government, Police and Media were being called to account.

On 4 July, a campaign started on Twitter and Facebook to dissuade big brands like Ford, Mitsubishi, The Co-Op and Lloyds TSB from advertising in the News of The World. The campaign tapped into the public mood and spread like wildfire across social networks. It had such an impact that just three days later, on 7 July, News International announced that that Sunday’s edition of the News of The World would be the last ever.

More revelations followed, and high profile resignations, including those of News International CEO Rebekah Brooks and Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson. Former News of The World Editor Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks were arrested. News Corporation’s founder, Rupert Murdoch, and its CEO, James Murdoch, were summoned to give evidence to a parliamentary select committee.

The fact that the UK’s best-selling, 168 year old newspaper could be closed down in a matter of days is astounding. What’s more surprising is that fact that, as people demanded respect through social media, the entire establishment was forced to listen. Five years ago, this type of organised protest, much like the middle class-led uprisings in the Middle East, simply would not have been possible.

In the future, our customers will expect to be listened to: have you thought about how you are using social media to listen to your customers?

Trend 2: Ethical business

Back in the 1970s, concepts like recycling and sustainable energy were the preserve of tree-hugging hippies, today they are part of the mainstream. And leading brands are falling over themselves in an effort to prove their environmental credentials.

In January, PepsiCo chose not to buy ad time during the Superbowl American Football final; instead it launched the Pepsi Refresh Project - an initiative offering more than $20m to spend on crowdsourced community projects. In a similar vein, Chase Bank’s Community Giving project gives grants to small and medium-sized charities: the bank has donated $3m in 2011 alone.

Last year, the UK’s Marks & Spencers published Plan A: a manifesto containing 180 commitments to help reduce its carbon footprint. The aim is for M&S to become the world’s most sustainable major retailer by 2015.

Google for Good, Ebay’s World of Good, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation - these initiatives and others like them are not simply due to media hype around global warming and other impending catastrophes. It’s down to fact that stakeholders matter. Their concerns matter. Business wants to show it cares.

“It’s not just conducting a tree-planting event once a year...you actually have to make your products greener,” says Archie Rastorguev of MMD, a big PR agency in Moscow and Eastern Europe. There’s no point in simply “astro-turfing” - posing as someone who believes in grassroots causes - you genuinely need to be that person.

Are you addressing the most pressing concerns of your stakeholders? Do you know what these concerns are? If you do, and you’re authentic, it’s a great way to increase goodwill towards your brand or business.

Trend 3: True Stories

If you make and care about something in your company, you need to talk about it in your marketing and advertising. In the mass marketing of the last century, brand icons like Colonel Saunders and Ronald McDonald became more powerful than the images and stories of craftspeople down the road. Now, thanks to the social web, we have what’s known as “word of mouth at scale”: we’re reconnecting with real people again.

There’s a little village near where I live in London: it has a deli, a butcher and an ironmonger. There used to be a cake shop but the lady who makes cakes has now moved back home (up the road) and takes orders over the phone. The weird thing is, these local businesses are doing okay, despite the downturn. Because the people who live around here don’t go to supermarkets any more: they get everything delivered (whether it be Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Ocado), and then they pop round the corner to top up.

We don’t mind paying a little extra because we get gossip from the deli owner, DIY advice from the ironmonger and theatrics from the butcher. And we appreciate the devotion these guys have to what they do. We pay for quality and a little bit of love, as well as the human relationships we’re building.

Funnily enough, it’s these sorts of local shops and services that do just brilliantly on social networks: they’ve got plenty to talk about because they’re passionate about what they do. In fact, Google recently launched a dedicated service, Google AdWords Express, specifically for this local market.

In the future, customers will want to see the whites of eyes of real people behind corporate facade (and employees, partners and suppliers will expect to see the same). Are you using true stories to market your business? Have you thought about how social media can help you do this?

Trend 4: Community

When you’re using a social network, how do you assess people? Is it by what they own in the real world (the car they drive, the house they live in) or is it by what they share with you (the article links, the videos, the insightful comments)? While we may start off “subscribing to” people with influential job titles or celebrity status, we may soon stop following them if they don’t give us interesting content.

Rachel Botsman, author of “What’s mine is yours: the rise of collaborative consumption” believes that sharing is second nature to Generation Y - people in their 20s and early 30s who make up an increasing proportion of the workforce. The Collaborative Consumption website lists around a hundred business models that put community and sharing at the heart of what they do.

Examples include Kickstarter (crowdsources funding for creative projects); Fashionstake (a sort of Groupon for desirable designer clothing); Taskrabbit (helps people outsource their every day chores); Air BNB (enables private individuals to rent out houses, apartments or rooms) and Zipcar (instead of owning a car, people can share them).

The reason this trend is so powerful is because it often offers social solutions to social problems. Also, businesses now share social networks with consumers: if you share the same platform as your customer you need a more inclusive business strategy.

Are you thinking about ways to involve and engage your wider business community?

Trend 5: Humility and honesty

I’m not sure which CEO originated the YouTube apology, but David Neeleman of American national airline, JetBlue, is a likely candidate. On Valentines Day 2007, JetBlue passengers were stranded for eight hours on a runway. As they blogged and tweeted about their ordeal, CEO Neeleman took to YouTube to apologise. Fast forward to January 2010, and Toyota is facing a PR disaster as it recalls seven million vehicles due to clutch and engine problems: CEO Akio Toyoda’s prompt YouTube apology was crucial in stablising the company’s share price.

For today’s C-level executives, being a part of the conversation around your brand is essential. Just look at what happened to BP in the vacuum created by its lack of engagement: while BP spent millions on advertising, activists launched spoof accounts on Twitter and Facebook. Remember, if you don’t feel the need to apologise - there’s always a chance someone else will do it for you.

Humility is one thing. What about honesty? We’re also seeing a trend in open innovation - where companies share information about problems in an effort to procure a solution. The Human Genome Project was a collaborative international venture (despite initial reluctance from private companies). On a smaller scale, Procter and Gamble’s Connect and Develop website publicly lists current problems in a bid to get outside contractors to help solve them. This openness is light years away from the controlled advertising messages of the past.

The fortress business is becoming less relevant. The walls of the corporation are increasingly permeable. If you’ve read “The Cluetrain Manifesto” (recommended by David Terrar in this newsletter last month), you’ll have acknowledged this change in your business operations. Are you still keeping customers and suppliers at arm’s length or are you attempting to strengthen relationships by communicating more honestly and openly?

Trend 6: Simplification

Right now, we’re experiencing a bottleneck: we feel overwhelmed by technology. Maybe that’s why so many of the best innovations of recent years have been time-saving, effort-saving devices.

Look at the success of all those products whose simple interfaces make our lives easier. Ocado has won numerous awards for its fuss-free home delivery service. More recently, the “i” newspaper surprised rivals by proving that a new, compact daily digest could succeed.

Whether it be the uncomplicated design of the Apple iPod or Google’s Home Page or the easy uploading functions of YouTube and WordPress, simplicity, it seems, can increase your chances of success.

This is not surprising when research has shown that a customer’s willingness to recommend a product or service bears an inverse correlation to the amount of effort they have had to put into using it. A key to Apple’s popularity has been its ability to avoid feature-creep on its products. Are you doing all you can to simplify processes and make life easier for your customers?

To conclude, these are the six things you, as a business owner, can ask:

- How can we use social media to listen better to our customers?

- What are our customers’ key concerns? How can we use social media to let them know we are doing something to help address these concerns?

- What true stories - about passion and real people - should we be using to market our business on social platforms?

- How can we develop a more inclusive business strategy that really engages with our community on a deeper level, improving relationships and boosting loyalty?

- Are we communicating as honestly and openly as we possibly can?

- Are we harnessing social media to cut through bureaucracy and keep things simple? Are we creating a near-effortless experience? Are we making our customers’ lives easier?

These questions lie at the heart of the social media strategies AAB Engage has been developing for clients. Please get in touch if you want us to help put the “social” in your business and marketing plans.

You can follow Jemima on Twitter @jemimag

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