Social Media in Corporations: Pros & Cons of Organizational Models

I dove into my “Big Thinking” folder recently and emerged with a slide from the “Social Media Trends for 2010” deck created by Jeremiah Owyang of the Altimeter Group, discussing organizational models for corporate adoption of Social Media.


Who is in control of this Social Media stuff?  What are the best practices?

These questions come up a lot, particularly amongst large brands.

Imagine: you have THOUSANDS of employees, who are not asking for your so-called permission to hang out on Facebook or Twitter; who may be blogging (with or without full transparency); who are likely finding and commenting (with or without full transparency) on industry blogs that cover your business. The situation could escalate out of control pretty quickly, especially in times of crisis.

Jeremiah’s slide points to the three major options that large corporations must consider re: Social Media adoption and planning.

The distributed model is the most compelling because it’s the least controlled; it’s a mess, a free-for-all.  Everyone in the company gets to chart their own path.  Join Twitter – or not.  Join Facebook – or not.  Start a blog – or not.  It’s the model that most companies fear the most – it is hard to monitor or contain.  Yet its very looseness gives it power.  Untethered, the company’s overachievers can rise to the top; they can become authoritative “personal brands” in the industry, and could help the business in surprising ways.  Two types of companies adopt this distributed approach: companies that fail to plan (and wind up hoping for the best) and, companies willing to put inordinate amounts of trust in their employees (see: Zappos).

IStock_000008908968XSmallThe centralized model is the “default setting” for most large companies.  Accustomed to CONTROL, this approach feels proper and minimizes surprises.  There’s one neck to choke when things go awry.  However, the rigidity of this model ignores the power of Social Media – to expose the company’s talented folks, at all levels, to various niches in which they might be impactful.  The centralized approach is superb for Brand Management and Customer Service but doesn’t answer the question about what everyone else in the company wants to do re: Social Media!  “Are you saying that because I’m not part of your Social Media team, I can’t tweet?” It begs for end-runs from within the company.

Clearly the coordinated model in Jeremiah’s slide is the one to espouse.  It’s beauty is that it is simple, reasonable and effective.  Guidelines are set (simple).  Monitoring and reporting mechanisms are deployed (reasonable).  Everyone gets to play, but knows the rules-of-the-road (which will evolve as new lessons are learned), and also knows that there are consequences for derailing the company’s brand online (effective).

But, as Jeremiah’s slide rightly notes, the effectiveness of this approach can take more time.

The coordinated policies might allow for great public-facing successes in Customer Service, for example, but might not do as good a job showcasing the talents of employees in other divisions.  The Social Media zealot working in a company with a “distributed” (free-for-all) approach will be self-motivated to make a mark; they’ll be fueled by ego to get noticed — and to make an impact before anyone in “Corporate” figures out that they need to set guidelines.  That same employee, working within the regulations set in a “coordinated” model, might find that spadework to be slower going.

What approach appeals the most to you?  What model does your current employer use (wittingly or not)?  Do you see that situation changing?

Posted on: March 10, 2010 at 8:30 am By Todd Defren
8 Responses to “Social Media in Corporations: Pros & Cons of Organizational Models”


  • Lindsay Baker says:

    Although I agree with many of the comments below that consider the best approach to be a hybrid of the centralized and coordinated models, this can get confusing. Yes, it would save time and money, but it is important to structure a social media initiative from the beginning. With a coordinated approach, you can ensure that every employee is on the same page which will save time and effort later down the road. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether you are the CEO or a part-time intern, your social media reflects your company.

  • Caite Vatcher says:

    For the organization I’m working for, the approach right now is very centralized. But like the slides indicate, this approach lacks authenticity. I believe it’s because the company is afraid to let the culture deviate from what is already established. Social media absolutely has the ability to transform the culture of a company. I work for a luxury brand and essentially, the culture defines the product.

    My hope is to establish more of a “coordinated” approach. Everybody will hopefully play by the rules and present the brand in a positive way. However, in order to reach the new demographic, some energetic, youthful life must come through the social media component. In my company’s case, a slight culture change through social media is really the only way to reach the young, female demographic. Otherwise, it remains your grandmother’s brand. In order to reach coordination, we’ve got a break a few norms.

  • Though counter-intuitive, we have found that granting open permission to employees to post on behalf of the organization actually inhibits activity. First, nobody wants to post something that might look trivial, or worse, stupid. And second, everybody begins to think posting is somebody else’s job.

    Ironically, something close to centralized control encourages the broadest participation. The tool we built gives authority to approve posts to one person, but — and this is the key — offers an open forum to all potential creators within an organization where post ideas can be suggested, debated and provisionally authored.

  • Mike Doyle says:

    Everyone happens to be their personal brand, whether corporations like it or not. You either train and trust your employees to speak well and cogently about the company or you don’t. But you don’t–and can’t–have ownership of their personal social media presences. And the moment you try to establish ownership, you tell your employees you don’t trust them. And that is often the beginning of the end for any employees who truly understand the importance of their personal voices on the Internet.

    This article is a bit like suggesting corporations try to establish ownership over who employees can and cannot talk to and what they can and cannot say over the phone or in snail mail. Certainly, they shouldn’t illegally share corporate secrets or the like. But anything else is off limits. Companies that “get” the Internet, “get” that concept. Those who don’t probably don’t deserve to retain employees who understand that any company trying to control the opinions of its employees is as bad news as people who try to do the same to their friends. It’s annoying, unfair, and not worth being around.

  • ed lee says:

    hey todd – surely the best strategy for any organization is a hybrid approach? can one not have an approach to SM that is centralized from the top down, coordinated using the individual layers of management to vet the small stuff, and allowing the employees a level of distributed freedom to use SM within the guidelines?

    even a distributed strategy will, by dint of being a strategy, be subject to centralized approvals?

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