During a breakfast meeting this morning, someone asked a very sharp question: Are businesses really operating differently because of social media? I then jumped in the car, drove from San Francisco back to our Foster City office, and heard how Cisco has used social media to change product launches.

The obvious change, of course, is lowering the cost, if you're not renting out the Moscone Center for a big launch party. Slightly less obvious changes include the ability to reach more people in more countries. , the virtual launch also makes it possible to reach more people, in more countries, than Cisco could with traditional face-to-face events.

So far, we're just considering changes in capability. Doing product launches cheaper, faster, better is an important innovation, but it's not a sign that a company is operating or thinking in a significantly different way. You might buy a cheaper, better, and faster car, but you might not change your driving habits one bit, or take more care to follow the traffic laws.

Therefore, during this conversation with Cisco, the one change from going to virtual product launches that really stuck out was operational: the marketing effort continues beyond the big ballyhoo day. Cisco employees remain engaged in conversations with customers through social media channels.

Contrast that with the old Moscone Center-style launch events. Everyone shows up for the big photo op, and then they go home. Sure, leads get entered into the CRM system, but that's hardly the same as continuing a conversation with the people you met at the launch event.

Of course, that means that some people at Cisco have to dedicate time to that continued conversation, instead of racing off to the next big launch event. There's a business decision behind allocating resources in this fashion, based on a different set of assumptions and calculations than the "marketer with a megaphone" launch events of 15 or 20 years ago.

Are social media for real? Yes, when they effect how companies operate.

[Cross-posted at The Heretech.]