Ben Edwards departed his role as publisher of Economist.com earlier this year to move to a newly-created position as VP of digital strategy and development at IBM, based in New York.
I caught up with the British publishing veteran yesterday in Cannes, after he presented a seminar with IBM’s new digital agency Euro RSCG 4D. Edwards discussed why social media is such a big priority for IBM, and why his role will hopefully become obsolete.
Why are B2B companies scared of social media?
I think B2B has generally adopted it later than B2C. It’s probably because B2C businesses by their nature are high volume, low transaction value and a lot of the business is already online. If you think about retail businesses and retail brands, the audience lives online, researches online and buys online. For a lot of B2B companies, that’s not the case – it’s face to face, it’s events, and experts. The sales cycle times are longer and more opaque. The whole thing is just more difficult. It’s not that they are afraid, it’s at a different stage of maturity and it presents different challenges.
In that case, why are you so focused on social media at IBM?
Because I think the time has come where the sales cycle, the sales process, the engagement model for B2B will over the next few years transfer and become digital.
How hard is that shift at a company like IBM?
IBM has a particular history with social media and it grows out of the internal culture and the brand. The internal culture has been one of hyper-networked horizontal collaboration. It comes out of two sources: the developer community and also what IBM calls workforce collaboration and enablement. In that sense, IBM and IBMers are very well-equipped and well-versed but on the other hand the challenge is to move them out of the company and to engage outside constituents. Whereas IBMers are skilful at that, we need to help our clients and our constituents understand the benefits of engaging this way.
Is that a difficult sell?
It’s beginning to change. We have these things called ‘jams’. Online forums, like jazz, where we are all improvising. They are structured online conversations that can happen between tens of thousands of people. You have leaders of the conversation, you identify different things you are going to talk about. There’s human analysis and computer analysis of the results and present those back to people in real time. Then you spend some weeks analysing, condense it down, present it back to people as actions you are going to talk.
IBM started these in 2001 and for the longest time they’ve been internal or selected external partners. Now we’ve begun doing them in quite large numbers with our clients. We’ll organise jams for clients to help them accelerate change internally, align the corporation around the CEO’s change agenda for instance. We’ll have jams between IBMers and clients around innovation – structured, crowdsourcing, mass participatory forums. The clients are beginning to really see the power of these technologies to accelerate change, to re-engineer the process.
Famously, Dell has made more than $6m out of Twitter. Are you able to put a figure yet on your return on investment from social media?
No. That’s one of the things we’re driving towards, for digital as a whole. The challenge for the B2B company is that the transactions close offline. You have to have more sophisticated conversion tracking. You have to instrument your sales teams so you have better conversion tracking, then you can prove out the ROI. It’s a more complex deal than Dell.
There are lots of people in senior digital roles. Do you see them going to head marketing or comms in the future?
I see my role as change management. A digital department is somewhat preposterous, its kind of like air and water, its everywhere. So, my philosophy is you do a good enough job, then they don’t need you anymore.