Social isn’t a strategy.

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Tonight I got involved in a great online discussion with Derek Overbey, Jeff Turner and Matthew Shadbolt about whether “social” levels the playing field between large organizations and small organizations. In other words, does social media make it easier for small business to compete with large business?

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In our twitter conversation, one of the common phrases was “All things being equal XXXX will win.” Usually XXXX was size but speed and smarts (intelligent online endeavors) were also brought up. For example, “All things being equal, the bigger org will win.” Eventually, we end up with a roshambo hierarchy to determine which resource is most important.

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There are three problems with this entire line of thought (and Jeff’s smiley in his tweet lets you know we’re all only too aware of them).

  1. “All things being equal” is not compatible with the existence of a bigger organization–creating what I like to refer to as the “Calling a dog a dirty name and hanging it” fallacy of hypothetical arguments.
  2. One can have too much of something. For example, one can be too big or too fast or too smart or even too social.
  3. A clearer understanding of “win” is required.

This, of course, is the perfect set up for the consultant’s answer to everything: It depends.

Whether or not social helps small business compete with big box stores will depend on strategy. Let’s dig in a little, in the spirit of the great conversations I have with these guys.

“Winning” and strategy for online endeavors

The first two issues are intriguing to explore, but the third–understanding what “win” means–is what I think we should tackle first.

I’m going to stick my neck out and drop a definition here (it’s my first time putting this one down in public so feel free to beat me about the head and ears if it doesn’t work):

The art and science of maintaining and deploying resources in order to have the freedom and flexibility to continue operations.

There are a few things to unpack in this definition of strategy and since I’ve come this far I may as well unpack them.

  • Strategy is an art because it involves personal choices.
  • Strategy is a science because there are often visible and repeatable results.
  • Maintaining resources is about conservation and growing.
  • Deploying resources is about spending and taking action.
  • Freedom is your ability to execute your plans at will.
  • Flexibility is your ability to respond, react and pivot when required.
  • Winning means to continue operations.

So that’s the root theory of strategy that I follow, as much as a bullet list will allow anyway. For the purpose of our “Large Business vs Small Business and the use of Social” conversation, the most important part is what I see as “winning.” It’s merely the ability to continue to operate.

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So how does “social” fit into online strategy?

“Social” is just another resource. An organization can maintain their social resource and they can deploy their social resource.

Some organizations will have more social resources and other organizations will have less. Some organizations will be better at deploying social resources and other organizations will be better at maintaining social resources.

I believe that the amount of social resource available is not directly related to size. A small organization can have a tremendous social resource.

However, a given that social resources are pretty tightly tied to individuals, a large organization with more individuals in it might have a greater chance of having the most or the best social resources. But it’s just a chance really.

Putting a priority on social doesn’t require size. A small organization can put a priority on social. A single individual in a large organization can put a priority on social. And entire organization can put a priority social. Size, it seems, doesn’t matter.

Size, social, speed, smarts–these are all resources. And they’re independent resources. Big size does not mean slow. Small size does not mean fast. There is nothing inherently social about small business. There is nothing inherently slow about large business. It just depends on leadership and esprit de corps within the organization.

What determines whether an organization wins–whether they can continue to operate–is whether these resources are used to advantage.

Social isn’t a strategy. It’s a resource.

“Being social” or “using social media” are typical descriptions of how people will enhance (conserve/maintain/grow) their existing social resource. But the socialness isn’t the strategy. The strategy is just making sure there are enough resources available to continue operating.

There are many ways to increase the presence of social resources in an organization. You can hire talent that possesses social resources or train existing talent in methods that increase social capability, for example.

The ability to do these things still requires putting a priority on social, which doesn’t require size. It’s the art of strategy.

If you believe that having a social business is going to increase your freedom and flexibility to continue operations, then it’s in your best interest to develop your social resource regardless of the size of your organization.

That’s nice. Can the social resource counterbalance the size resource in a competitive environment?

I believe that social can counterbalance size in a competitive environment.

An example of an end-game in this could be the situation of Borders declaring bankruptcy while there are a great many independent bookstores which continue to operate.

Without the benefit of real data, I’m going to wager that the independent bookstores have a greater social resource than Borders. Borders certainly has size and scale to its advantage (or perhaps, in a world of shrinking paper-media sales, disadvantage). Either way, Chapter 11 is a key performance indicator that heralds significant decrease in freedom as well as a red flag regarding ability to continue operations.

From a strategy perspective, competition for resources was most likely indirect–Borders and independent bookstores were not in direct competition for social resources. The social capabilities of independent bookstores probably wasn’t the deciding factor in Borders declaring bankruptcy.

More likely Borders was unable to pivot in a changing marketplace and effectively use their size to their advantage. This could be a case of having too much of a resource or inability to pivot.

Simultaneously, independent bookstores’ small size may be a default advantage in a shrinking marketplace for paper-media. Whatever inefficiencies and large margins were likely beaten out of them in the first round of online book sales.

The remaining small bookstores are probably as efficient as they can be while still continuing to operate. And by efficient here I mean that the percentage of the small bookstore organization that connects directly with their customers. Connecting directly with customers is a way of increasing social resources.

Small bookstores have become increasingly social in their approach perhaps by default–all non-social resources have been bled away. This is social as survival mechanism.

The social connection customers have with their independent book stores allows for continued operations in the face of a shrinking marketplace. Unable to compete with online bookstores on price, small bookstores compete on social.

Will social always win the day for small business vs large business?

No. Social is just a resource. Different situations, organizations and types of operations that need continuing will require different resources.

Continuing our bookstore example, the continued demise of paper-media may wipe out the independent bookstore just as it did Borders. As the tide of the paper-media market goes out to sea the big boats got beached first but the little boats will surely get beached as well. Social might not be enough to save the independent bookstore.

A different resource focus may be needed to survive the changing marketplace. Instead of focusing on the freedom to continue buying and selling paper media, independent bookstores might need to focus on the flexibility to develop new markets or operations.

How’s that for an “it depends” answer?

Join the Conversation


  1. Gahlord, first, excellent stuff. I absolutely could not have said it better myself. Second, I understood the problem with my statement illustrated above, thus the smiley. 🙂 And third, this is exactly why I said in one of my tweets, “too many undefined variables in that question.” And I wanted to say “it depends” to almost every example. 🙂

    The warning bell for me was that the original question raises “social” to a level that it doesn’t deserve. Social is nothing by itself. I also felt the question assumed into reality the notion that smaller, local companies can do “social” better. That is simply not the case.

    Thanks for taking that discussion to the next level.

  2. Missed the twitter conversation but a very interesting piece, Gahlord. Recognition of “Social” as a resource instead of a strategy puts an entirely different perspective on its use as a business tool.

  3. Thanks Lazz! Yeah the social media gold rush is also explained when you look at social as a resource.

    As a resource, social has always been with us (the book store example in the post, for example). But for online marketing, social is a relatively new resource and thus the gold rush. Supposedly this will be the year that people get serious about it though. We’ll see.

    Thanks for reading and your feedback.

  4. Big social. Small social. Big business. Small business. It all boils down to social quality management (SQM). The company/business is only as strong as its weakest social link and rhetor, in the inside-out mentality of brand-building. The smartest businesses understand that hiring good people at the core wins in the end, online and off.

  5. Great summary of a great discussion Gahlord.

    What this discussion and summary made me see was the flaw in my original question. There are so many variables in the equation. Some small thrive while others fail. The same with the big guys as you illustrated with your Borders example.

    Social is just a resource that when used properly can have a big impact on your overall objectives. But other resources can too. I guess it’s finding the balance and concentrating on what resources will make you successful in your marketplace.

  6. Very interesting discussion and post. Thanks for tweeting the link, Jeff. Every day I’m bombarded with people wanting to strategize using social media, and this gives me a perspective with which to argue effectively that it goes beyond strategy. Great thinking, gentlemen!

  7. Brian: Dead on. The dissemination of social tools really starts give social advantage to companies who employ, well, social people. However, other resources or operational requirements can lead companies to focus on other things and still succeed. –I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on SQM.

    Derek: Thank you for sparking an awesome discussion for, I believe, the second time in less than four days. Great work!

    Deborah: Thanks for stopping by! Strategy is about effectively maintaining and deploying resources–social and others. It isn’t so much that social goes beyond strategy, it’s that many who are touting “social media strategy” are not talking about strategy at all but rather planning or tactics. But I think we probably agree more than disagree here.

  8. Gahlord- very interesting topic- I wondered what the discussion was about when I saw the tweets flying. I agree with your point! Social is a resource but has to be implemented with other facets of your business strategy.

  9. Gahlord – Great topic and post. I agree the biggest part of it is the, “all things being equal” comment.

    An excellent example of this I experienced first-hand here in Chicago(land). ABT Electronics which is a local provider of electronics goods in the NW suburb of Glenview.

    Not only are they competitive to the BB stores – but they simply blow them away on service and engagement (both online and off). In fact as I tweeted about them in the store I was contacted by one of their reps asking if I needed help on a particular product. (Still waiting for BestBuy or HomeDepot to do that)

    On top of that they have incredibly knowledgeable salespeople, in store displays, a water show (think mini-Belagio), warm cookies being baked, free coffee, etc. All of which plays into the “Social Differentiator” you speak about here.

    Personally I think you’re spot on – and smaller can change and adapt faster than larger and in today’s market it’s all about adaption.

    Matt Dollinger

  10. Matt: Thanks for stopping by and providing another example. One thing I think is important to note here though, is that it isn’t ABT’s size which makes it possible to be more social than BestBuy or other big box stores. It’s ABT’s commitment to being social, it’s the skill of the leadership and esprit de corps of the staff.

    Same as with the book store example, the small electronics shop cannot compete on price or breadth of stock (though frankly, many big box stores are a joke when it comes to product selection as well) so they compete on the strength of their social resources.

    I suspect that what is lacking in the larger store operations is lack of courage on the part of leadership to make their organizations nimble and more social. Either that or they don’t feel it’s a required resource to continue their operations.

  11. Gahlord…I love your writing style~articulate, witty, thought provoking and extremely insightful. I am reminded of the thesis put forth in the book “Small Giants”. The small companies showcased in that book could grow bigger but chose not to. They continued to deliver to the consumer the “whole” experience in such a way that the results were remarkable and sustainable. Of course, as you reiterate, it takes the right people in the right seats on the bus with initiatives that remain in alignment with their core values. What a concept:)!…V

  12. Gahlord,

    An interesting post, something that I think a lot about. In my area, Social seems more like a descriptor. Put it on the front of something else and suddenly more people pay attention, think it is cool and want to be a part of it. My theory is that ‘Social’ will disappear from the vernacular and we will be businesses, with applications and those that are transparent and offer products and services which meet or exceed expectations, a fair value exchange, will be around.

    The question of Social as a resource is something I have not really considered. At first blush, I do not like thinking of it as something to be used, I prefer to think of it as an extension of how businesses work and work to increase the human element. To perform some of these actions can be a drain on resources, as it often takes more effort to ‘be human’, do extra, be patient to make sure that you have exceeded expectations towards the customer experience.

    I might simply be saying the same thing, just in a different way. Interesting post sir, gives me a perspective to consider more carefully. -Mitch

  13. Coming from four years with the US Department of Energy (my summer collegiate job), we always had TQM (Total Quality Management). It was a constant checks and balances to ATTEMPT to give the best quality experience within the plant. TQM was a process of ingredients that supposedly brought the desired result. It was formulated and deliberate. On Social Quality Management (SQM), there, too, is a formula…presence + engagement + reciprocation = supposedly SQM. Just as in the TQM model, there’s an unquantifiable aspect in raw talent. We could put our very best scientist through the TQM measurement, and she would not make the best grade. In the end, however, her work was accurate, quality and authoritative due to results. I believe the same holds true in the social space. Some seem to break all the rules. Some seem to do a mixture of learned strategy and good sense social aptitude. In the end, the oomph factor dictates success. In the social space, the more people learn about you and your core brand values the more in can hurt or help. Ultimately, some have it, some don’t.

  14. Mitch: Thanks for your insights, always useful. I agree that referring to social as a resource runs the risk of turning people into objects. Sort of like the “human resources” department. But I’m willing to go there as long as humans get treated like humans along the way. I think that “social” as it’s used online encompasses both human factors, technology available, and aptitude for dealing with both humans and technology. Jeff’s followup post (in the trackbacks) is a good short assessment of some of that.

    Totally with you on marketingeze.

    Brian: Totally didn’t know you did a stint at the DoE. Cool. The problem with quality/qualitative/voice/human factors is probably always that it doesn’t easily fit into the Cartesian or binary worldview that represents most scientific endeavor. Doesn’t mean we can’t try though.

    I definitely think that the stuff you mention regarding rule breaking etc is dead on. Part of why I can’t stand “best practices” in fields which don’t rely on the laws of physics or life/death biology.

  15. I’m going to have to think about this for a while longer. Great post, love the ideas. I guess I have a different definition of “Winning” which leads to totally different conclusions… but need to think about that.

    I define “WIN’ as, “Getting the other guy to cease operations”. Without conflict, there is no winning and losing; business is competition; ergo, victory means not only do you get to continue operations, but your competitors do not. See, e.g., Apple iTunes, Ebay, Google. The end-goal, so rarely reached, is to get sued by the Dept of Justice for anti-trust violations because of your sheer market power.

    Maybe I’m a little bit too influenced by Sun Tzu, and too little by Lovecats or something…


  16. Rob: Everyone needs to find the right definition of winning for them. Your definition is exceptionally valid. Once in a monopoly situation then, theoretically, you don’t have to worry about competing at all.

    Obviously it doesn’t work out that way in the real world, whether you’re getting sued by the DoJ or having to hire mercenaries to fight your own armed forces and populace. Master Tzu speaks to us from beneath a protective covering of earth, after all. 😉

    Thanks for stopping by and giving your thoughts, Rob. You’re among my favorites to discuss strategy with.

  17. Gahlord, I knew you’d appreciate it. 🙂

    To be more serious, however, if the essential issue is that you cannot divorce strategy from conflict/competition, then your working definition would need to be modified slightly. I’ll throw something up explaining in more detail over at NROB.

  18. Rob: My definition is purposely broad enough to handle a wide variety of types of conflict, including competition. In situations where conflict interrupts the ability to continue to operate, then ending that conflict becomes a strategic objective.

    I look forward to reading your post and agreeing to disagree over there. 😉

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