IT ratchets up social-media involvement

Although marketing still rules most companies' social-media strategy decisions, IT is increasingly getting a seat at the table.

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IT becoming more involved

IT may be stepping up its involvement as use of social media spreads. "Our reliance on IT support is heavier now" than it was two years ago, says Jesse Redniss, vice president of digital at NBC Universal/USA Network. Redniss's group not only helps market content and shows, but also runs a thriving casual gaming business, with its own profit-and-loss statement.

NBC Universal adopted a setup where IT operates infrastructure and tools used across the company, including a video content management system, data-mining tools and a single sign-on system for visitors to all of its Web properties. To handle department-specific IT projects, the company has a unit called Digital Products and Services (DPS).

Redniss says he used to think IT was too cumbersome to respond quickly enough for social media needs, but he now says "we didn't fully understand how much we needed them."

Over the past couple of years, as NBC Universal has developed broad corporate efforts involving Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other social media sites, data management and data mining have grown more important components. "We really do need to figure out the right kind of funnels to build to bring everything to them so they can store it, and we can sift through it," he says.

But his unit will still make its own technology decisions, too. Toward that end, Redniss recruited a DPS employee named Robin Fordham to join NBC Universal/USA Network 18 months ago. "I just jumped the fence," says Fordham, who is now director of technology for the USA television network. "Instead of USA Net being my client, I work for them directly."

Fordham has a small team of developers working for him. He says they figure out how to execute Redniss's ideas. For instance, when Redniss wanted to improve customer loyalty, Fordham's group took the lead in adopting Bunchball, which uses gaming to build loyalty. His unit also has done most of the work in adopting Echo's Streamserver commenting engine. Bunchball is gaining traction across NBC Universal's websites, and may soon become the province of the centralized IT group.

Leaping aboard

Social networking has roared to the top of many corporate to-do lists. In an eMarketer survey of 227 companies with more than 100 employees, 80% of the respondents said that their companies intended to use social media for marketing purposes in 2011, up from 58% in 2009.

Meanwhile, use of social networking is growing in other departments, thanks to new tools and new strategies.

Social media tools are spreading "across all departments," says Michael Fauscette, an analyst at research firm IDC. IDC does a twice-yearly survey measuring which departments manage social media strategies and tools. When the firm first launched the survey three and a half years ago, marketing dominated the results.

"[Marketing] was by far the most prevalent department," Fauscette noted. "Now it's pretty even distribution across all departments, including sales and customer service." Fauscette says social media is used internally for collaboration and for idea generation, and externally for marketing and crisis response.

When it comes to managing the strategy behind social media, however, IDC's survey results show that marketing still rules -- it handles that responsibility at 48% of companies -- and IT isn't involved at all. Corporate communications is second, cited by 29% of the respondents as one of the departments that handles social media strategy (multiple answers are permitted). Meanwhile, 26% of the respondents named product development, 23% said customer service, and 16% named sales.

Fauscette calls this shift a sign of the maturing of the social media market. He says that this means social tools will begin to become part of IT's purview. "We're starting to see IT more involved in what they should be: helping implement and find the right tools, produce the tools, and optimize the work."

He also notes that when social media moves out of marketing's control, "it puts you in a much better position from a business perspective to look at it in broader terms." That's what IT can come in and start to do, in other words.

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