We've been working on a major piece of research to answer a fundamental question now affecting our clients: “How do companies change as they adopt social technologies?” Today, we’ve published the report: Accelerating Your Social Maturity: How To Move From Social Experimentation To Business Transformation, which you can also find as a new chapter in the newly updated paperback version of the Groundswell book. Staying true to the nature of the research, this was a collaborative effort involving analysts from all nineteen of the roles Forrester serves across Marketing & Strategy, IT, and the Technology Industry, but it was ultimately written to interactive marketers like you who are often on the front lines of social media for their organization.

So what did we learn? The biggest insight that came from this research is that, no matter what industry your company is in, what geographies you reside in, or what audience you’re targeting, large organizations tend to go through common stages of change as they adopt and use social technologies for business. We call this process of change “social maturity,” and we've outlined the steps to accelerate from one stage to the next. In fact, combining survey data of 95 respondents involved in social media at companies with more than 1,000 employees, interviews with more than 30 companies at all stages of maturity, and a wide range of existing research, we were able to plot each stage onto the following bell curve that reads right to left (you may recognize this model from the Diffusion Of Innovations theory):

Ultimately, we found that most companies fall within five stages:

  • Laggards: the dormant stage. Forrester estimates that one in five companies is currently not using any social media. These companies tend to be highly conservative, heavily regulated, or just not interested (yes they exist; think non-tech B2B). To get beyond this stage, we recommend that interactive marketers help garner “small victories” – focusing on the best opportunities that can be used as case studies within the organization to get the ball rolling.
  • Late majority: the testing stage. While most companies are using social media, it tends to start organically in pockets. This stage can be described as “distributed chaos,” and to move beyond it, we recommend that a senior interactive marketer step up to play the role of “shepherd” to help coordinate efforts across the organization. (It’s important to note that this role is sometimes manifested in a “social media strategist” or similar, but it is not required, as many companies mature successfully through existing interactive marketing teams).
  • Early majority: the coordinating stage. At this point, management recognizes the risks and rewards of social media and begins to put the resources and governance in place to create consistency across the organization, from “distributed chaos” to a more centralized approach. To move beyond this stage, we recommend that interactive marketers work with a steering committee made up of key stakeholders to develop a foundation of shared resources, policies, processes, and budget in place for the long term so the focus can shift to optimizing results.
  • Early adopters: the scaling and optimizing stage. These leaders (think Starbucks, Best Buy, and Coca Cola) have already coordinated their social organization and are now focusing on optimizing their social media activities – from improved processes to more advanced metrics to integration with other marketing activity. The next big step for this group is to determine who within the organization is best suited for using social applications to solve customer problems (their HEROes) and for the shepherd to help lead the creation of a plan for empowering all relevant employees with social media.
  • Innovators: empowering their employees. At this stage, all relevant employees have been trained and empowered to use social media – essentially “organized distribution” – though centers of excellence are still needed. Only a few companies have even just entered this stage (think Zappos.com) but we expect many more to follow over the course of the next year.

So what does this all mean? Much of the hype around social media makes it sound as if you open a Facebook page or Twitter account and then you can shut down your advertising, turn off your company email, your customers and employees will then swoon, and marshmallows will fall from the sky. In reality, social media is still very nascent and it is a lot of work. But there is good news: Now you can identify your company’s current position on the bell curve and then build a plan for accelerating your company’s social maturity.