Centralized and Decentralized Listening With Rapid Local Action

As we explained previously, leaders are far more likely than followers to have a bigger internal ‘social circle’– numerous business functions that do active listening work closely on social media rather than independently. (See Exhibit V-12)

Exhibit V-12: Having One Large Social Circle to Exploit Social Media (vs. Many Smaller Ones)

Ex-5.12 large social circle exploit social media

So what exactly goes on in such a big social circle? Who does what? What makes it possible for business functions to collaborate regularly on social media – on everything from overall strategy to daily responses? From our survey data to best-practice interviews, companies on the vanguard with social media share several characteristics:

  • They have a central social media group (at the parent company or business units or both) that sets strategy and policies around social media data. (See Exhibit V-13) This group also collects social media data so that it isn’t segregated and guarded by one function.
  • They have representatives from numerous business functions in the group (or reporting dotted line into the group). That means multiple functions can jointly analyze consumer issues or opportunities.
  • After they decide cross-functionally how to respond to major consumer issues (or opportunities), they push down action to the local level – regions, functions, and divisions that need to take action.

Exhibit V-13: Implementing a Large Internal Social Circle

Ex-5.13 implementing large internal social circle

It would be a mistake to call this ‘centralizing’ social media. Collecting and analyzing data is indeed centralized (although functional representatives are helping in that analysis). But action is then distributed to the right divisions and business functions. Also note that ‘distributed’ does not mean that social media strategy, listening and analysis is decentralized. Rather, functions in a business unit carefully consider and agree on how each will respond to consequential social media data. Of course, social media dialogue that represents a threat to a company’s broader reputation must be managed at a corporate level as well.

Nestle’s social media group, its Digital Acceleration Team, illustrates this well. The group reports to both, corporate marketing and consumer communications. It brings in digital marketers from the company’s country markets for eight months of training in a consumer engagement center. They are trained on how to interact with consumers through social media.1 But the team is also in the center of discussions that go beyond marketing and consumer communications. “Those of us in digital or social media are unifying a lot of pieces of the enterprise,” said Pete Blackshaw, global head of digital and social media, in a 2012 conference presentation. He said his team also works with Nestle managers in product quality, sales, supply chain, and R&D on the company’s social media interactions with consumers.2

Ultimately, if a company wants to use consumer interactions from social media to change decisions in R&D, manufacturing, marketing, sales, service and other functions, it may be better off not reporting to any customer-facing function – be it marketing, sales or service. Indeed, marketing, sales and service need personnel listening and engaging with social media. However, if the central group is owned by one of these three functions, it makes it harder for the entire company to leverage social media.

At a global cable TV broadcaster, when it became clear that social media needed to be more than just PR & marketing, all social media activities were moved from corporate communications and back to a digital group, where the activities had been launched. In a similar way, a major global consumer electronics company increasingly sees the need for a centralized social organization divorced from marketing communications. That will help with all the other areas and make it more than a media channel. That said, centralizing social media has been slow to take hold in this company.

The survey results on leaders and followers about how social media was organized shed further light on these issues. Some 51% of leaders either centralized social media activities in a division, or decentralized in divisions by business function but coordinated the activities. Another 41% centralized social media at the parent company. In contrast, the followers were more likely to centralize social media at the parent company (56% did so). And they were more likely than leaders to have the activities decentralized and not coordinated (the case in 12% of followers against 8% of leaders). (See Exhibit V-14)

Exhibit V-14: How Leaders and Followers Organized Social Media Activities

Ex-5.14 leaders laggards organized social media

The survey results on which function or individual controls social media shed more light on these issues. Among leaders, 47% of social media activities were controlled by a ‘neutral’ party –one without a daily customer-facing role. (Marketing, sales and customer service have daily customer-facing roles). These 47% comprised either a chief customer experience officer, a chief digital officer, a separate social media group, or the CIO/CTO. In another 16% of leaders, multiple business functions controlled social media collaboratively. It is important to note that only 22% of leaders gave social media control to marketing. (See Exhibit V-15)

In the followers, nearly half (49%) gave control to marketing, and another 8% gave it to customer service.

Exhibit V-15: Leaders Keep Social Media Control Out of Marketing’s Hands

Ex-5.15 leaders social media control


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  1. Michael Nutley, “The CMO.com Europe Interview: Nestle’s Pete Blackshaw,” CMO.com, May 13, 2013 []
  2. From a video of Blackshaw’s speech at the ad:tech New Delhi 2012 conference. []

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