If you are reading this, you probably have a working understanding of social media. You almost certainly have a LinkedIn profile, maybe even a Facebook page. And if you are an executive at a ‘public-facing’ company – say a utility or a transit system – you probably also have a twitter profile (albeit managed by your corporate communications team).
The technological sophistication is hard to deny; in just a decade, social media has become all-pervasive and all-knowing – its algorithms and network effect unparalleled in their ease and elegance.
More importantly, it has also gained sophistication of pedigree. Today’s ‘traditional’ media tend to see social media as a reliable and trustworthy source. Politicians use social media as a grassroots vehicle to communicate with their constituents. And even banks see social media as a channel that can help them rebuild trust with their stakeholders. No longer the belligerent adolescent; social media has become mature and sophisticated.
For infrastructure developers, investors and owners, the growing sophistication and power of social media is far more than an interesting development; it is a massive opportunity and a massive risk.
Let’s start with the risk. Left unmanaged, social media has the power to delay projects, add unexpected costs and – in extreme cases – lead to project failure. In part, this is because social media users (particularly those born into the digital world) have also become increasingly sophisticated and powerful. Social activists even more so; having been virtually locked out of the traditional media for decades, most activists quickly became adept social media users and now understand how to harness the channel to achieve their goals.
But it’s not just social activists that have become adept social media users. So, too, have investors. In fact, we have worked with a number of large pension funds and other institutional investors who have used information taken from social media to inform their investment decisions. In some cases, they have passed over financially sound investments due to potential issues they noted on social media.
The flip side of risk is opportunity. And the opportunity for social-media savvy infrastructure players is equally strong. By leveraging information from social media, infrastructure developers and owners could avoid the types of delays, costs and reputational damage that can result from a social backlash to a project. They can identify and mitigate risks before they arise. And they can predict – even before shovels hit the dirt – how various segments of society and the local community will respond to certain activities and actions surrounding their project.
Our experience suggests that virtually every non-technical delay on an infrastructure project could be avoided if executives had paid better attention to what social media was telling them. All too often, signs of major issues first appear on social media. Those who know how to listen to those signs can also be the ones that avoid them.
Many infrastructure executives may believe that they already do a fairly good job at listening to social media. They likely have a handful of digital natives and millennials stashed away within the marketing department who monitor their brand, respond to customer comments and post service updates.
However, we do not believe that this level of social listening goes nearly far enough given the massive risks and opportunities that social media represents. Real social media ‘listening’ is about more than simply tracking brand mentions, net promotor scores and positive/negative sentiment. It requires a deeper understanding of nuances such as the history of the key actors and influencers, the velocity and veracity of the conversations and the connections between other likeminded groups or influencers.
Part art and part science, the value of social media listening often depends on the capabilities of those analyzing the data. More than just experience in marketing, social listening requires the combination of wide-ranging disciplines such as demographics, mathematics, sociology, engineering, phycology and analytics in order to deliver truly valuable insights.
For the most part, current social media listening activities in the infrastructure sector tend to focus on managing immediate and current issues. Key topics are monitored in real-time, shifts in the mood or the pace of the discussion are analyzed and executives are informed – often through a bi-weekly dashboard or monthly report – on the current level and potential impact of key non-technical risks. This has proven to be an extremely valuable activity for risk and crisis management, helping executives defend and mitigate issues as they arise.
More exciting however, is the predictive nature of social listening. This is where early signals of trends are captured and analyzed, potential scenarios are plotted based on experience and social models, and responses are tested in the court of social media to predict fairly accurately how a segment of the population or community area will respond to various factors.
How can infrastructure participants start really listening to social media? First, executives will need to carefully assess who should ‘own’ responsibility for social media within the organization. Whether it remains within marketing and sales or whether it is consolidated under the risk management function within the executive team, organizations need to be very clear about the risks and opportunities that social media represents.
Next, infrastructure executives will need to focus on finding, retaining and developing the right mix of capabilities, tools and talent to drive actionable and practical insights from their social media data. This is still largely an emerging field; finding individuals with skills and a track record will be difficult for the time being.
The most important step, however, is what executives do with the insights and predictions that their social listening efforts deliver. Having the right governance models, risk management frameworks and controls to ensure that information is turning into action will be key.
Ultimately, we believe that infrastructure organizations and their leaders need to recognize that social media simply can’t be ignored. To do so would be to add a new dimension of risk that could be avoided. And with social media increasingly acting as a force of convergence between traditional media, social activists, financial analysts and politicians, it seems clear that the risks are only set to rise.