Brian Solis was looking great in a mauve tie and dove grey suit (to match the cover of What Is the Future of Business?) at Spredfast’s Saturday gathering with customers. He led a fascinating conversation with AT&T’sBlair Klein, LinkedIn’s Brian Goffman, REI’s Lulu Gephart, Spredfast’s CMO Jim Rudden, and Whole Food’s Natanya Anderson. I was fortunate to tag along.

Brian set the stage by observing that social is about two things: you and your interactions, and scale, provided by technology. Brian Solis: “Social media has two important components to it: social media is about me, and what is happening today, but tech is about scale and (social) has to scale with (technology). Businesses need to be everywhere; we need to be everywhere. Technology is cloning your intentions, your individual engagement and relationships.”  

Solis elicited from each of the brands a sense of how their own journey with their company’s social initiative has Imageevolved from a very particular, mostly reactive one to one that embraces more parts of the business and has, most importantly, a clear purpose. But I’m getting ahead of the story…

Whole Foods’ Anderson: “People want to have two very specific conversations with us and these are not the same (virtual and in-store). It’s incredible because it allows us to bridge the gap between store visits.

Before social, you really only interacted with us every week or so, when you came to visit, but now I get you to interact with me every day. We’ve taken what was previously just a physical store floor and created an interconnected virtual store floor where we can have ongoing conversations with our customers daily. Now I understand what [social] can be for us – staggering and awesome at the same time.“

REI moved into social in 2005, as a company that was comfortable with early adoption. But as REI’s Gephart noted, “We’re mission driven and cooperative which fits with social. We have a lot of that in our brand. In that way we’re lucky we’ve been in the game for a long time. Only recently have we been separating intention and action in order to start to get a little more strategic about what we’re doing in this space. “

Separating “intention from action” is what is leading these brands away from the old models of audience and fan-building, to conversation-building with specific groups of people, defined less and less by how they come to the company than about who they are as customers.

This has been true for AT&T’s Blair: “Initially we were driven from corporate communications (and help desk) questions and answering …. Now we’re moving into ‘how do we respond, how do we give customers and non-customers what they want, deliver proactive info, etc.’ We are moving from ‘call to action’ to ‘call to conversation.’ We have key learnings around net promoters score, customer stats and purchase intent. Once someone has engaged with us via social, we have some good learnings of what that does.”

You don’t move a large organization like AT@T overnight, nor do you incorporate disparate stores or independently directed retailers.  As Solis pointed out, “in order to run social, you need to make the company social.” With AT&T leading, the brand representatives discussed how they were using a “centers of excellence” approach to bring “corporate people” to a “horizontal view in the middle.”

Solis: “Is it always comfortable?”

Blair: “No. The sooner they recognize that they all have a piece of social media, they recognize that they have to own it together and put together the best approach for the company in a holistic way. The piece I find so important is recognizing each year when planning, to look at the ‘earned and paid’ strategy together. The friction point for big brands is that people on the earned side (of content) need to understand that they have value to the paid (side of media), and the paid side has value to earned. Editorial calendars should be aligned. Everyone needs to come to the table quickly when opportunities arise. The same applies when things hit the fan. So, the two things are (part of) the Center of Excellence with horizontal responsibility in the middle, and paid and earned working together.”

As Whole Foods, REI and AT&T have discovered, you can no longer separate your customers by where they reach you, i.e. customer service or sales, or when they walk into your store. Neither, as Solis points out, can you rely on the old marketing approach of hugely aggregated demographics. The more we learn and interact with customers and move away from broadcast strategies, and the more we converse, the more we need content.

Gephart spoke for the panel by pointing out: “Content is a huge hairy piece – how do we create content that is compelling – and connect better with the audience? Things are changing quickly. We’re thinking about segmentation as a marketing fundamental. We have the theory, but just now we have new tools. Tools are going to change no matter what, so we have clear actions we are trying to build towards.”

Not the last word, but perhaps the best summary was provided by Spredfast’s Rudden: “Just to be engaged in that conversation and to have content that is really sustaining a conversation that people are interested in, you can’t do it at broadcast, you have to do it in lots of different places, which as marketers, I think we all knew that this was what it was coming to.”