IT Juggles Its Social Media Roles

Social media used to be solely a marketing task. But now that its use is expanding, does IT play implementer, cop, manager or all of the above?

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IT Gets More Involved

IT may be stepping up its involvement as 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' 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 in which 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 website visitors. The company's Digital Products and Services (DPS) unit handles department-specific IT projects.

Redniss says he used to think IT was too cumbersome to respond quickly enough to 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 become paramount. "We really 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," Redniss says.

But his unit will still make its own technology decisions, too. In fact, 18 months ago, Redniss recruited a DPS employee, Robin Fordham, who is now director of technology for USA Network. "I just jumped the fence," says Fordham. "Instead of USA Net being my client, I work for them directly."

Fordham leads a small team of developers that figures out how to execute Redniss' ideas. For instance, when Redniss wanted to improve customer loyalty, the group took the lead in adopting Bunchball's Nitro platform, which uses gaming to build loyalty. Fordham's unit has also done most of the work in adopting Echo's Streamserver, a commenting engine.

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 their employers intended to use social media for marketing purposes in 2011, up from 58% in 2009.

Meanwhile, social networking is being adopted by other departments, thanks to new tools and strategies.

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

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

When it comes to managing the strategy behind social media, however, 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 were permitted). Meanwhile, 26% of the respondents named product development, 23% said customer service, and 16% cited sales.

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

IT's Role: Tool Master

For now, though, IT shows up in the integration and implementation of the tools, a role that Fauscette says makes sense. When the technology moves beyond experimenting or department-level expense charge-offs, "the CIO is in the room a lot of the time. Firms need a broader perspective," Fauscette says.

One CIO who's "in the room" is Craig Neeb, both CIO and vice president of multichannel marketing at International Speedway Corp., which runs racetracks across the country.

Neeb has been CIO at International Speedway in Daytona Beach since 2000. He added his marketing role in 2008, about a year before social media became important to the company's marketing strategy. International Speedway now uses websites for each of its dozen tracks and runs mobile marketing and social media campaigns, primarily on Facebook and Twitter. It also has a customer contact center that makes and takes phone calls and runs Web chats.

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