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Interview - Guy Clapperton

Switching onto social media as a commercial tool is critical to your marketing strategy. Nick Smith talks to author Guy Clapperton, whose new book tells you how to turn social media into business.

Whenever a revolution comes along, its protagonists, bystanders and commentators will naturally divide into two camps. There will be those who see change as a force for good, the guiding light to a brave new world, and those who run scared, pretend it's not happening and hide their heads in the sand.

Of course, not all revolutions are like this. But the social networking software revolution is. We live in a world where there are more mobile phones than there are toothbrushes. People care more about being digitally connected than their teeth.

Once upon a time tweeting was purely social and supporters of the medium set about gaining more friends in virtual space than they could ever hope to achieve in their real lives. As an individual you were either on Facebook, Twitter and Linked-in or you weren't. By opting in, you wore a badge that said you were part of the socially networked future. Either that, or you lived in your cave with your black and white TV and vinyl records.

But social media was always a technology in search of a serious application. The developers got rich while we told each other what café we were in. Our businesses couldn't make any money out of it, and so it was no use as a tool for transacting business. Or was it the other way around?

Author and technology media commentator Guy Clapperton thinks those days are over and he's written two books to explain why. His latest - 'This is Social Commerce' - is a sequel to 'This is Social Media', which was written "for small business owners who knew that there was something called Facebook or Twitter out there. But didn't know what to do with it from a business point of view and couldn't afford to outsource".

The new book, according to Clapperton, takes matters to the next level, where there are financial transactions involved, where there are businesses that couldn't exist without bringing a customer-base together electronically. It's getting like-minded people together to vote on products, to establish prices that would be otherwise difficult to get. An electronic retail model, it can apply to recruitment, funding and other aspects of commerce that can take advantage of a crowd of people meeting in a virtual space. "I'm not just talking about a bit of brand marketing over the social networking platforms," says Clapperton.

Clapperton has been a technology journalist for two decades and has paid close attention to the shifts in communications technology. But when confronted with the arrival of social media, he admits he needed to get his "brain around this". He looked for a book on the subject, and finding that there was none, set out to write his own. Instead of taking the traditional author route of writing proposals, getting an agent and negotiating the publisher beauty parades, he simply tweeted "why is no-one interested in my idea for a book about social media for business?". Such is the power of social networking that a publisher in the US tweeted back, asking Clapperton to send his proposal. The US office referred the proposal to Capstone in the UK and the book grew. What's important about this story-within-a-story is that Clapperton's approach to getting published only served to bear out his conviction that you could do business across the platform he intended to write about.

The next thing that Clapperton noted was that not only was business changing, but the nature of the people engaged in that business was changing too. "I'd start my media presentations by saying good morning to the tops of everyone's head because they were all tweeting or on their mobile phones." Clapperton became fascinated by the psychology of the digital customer, and he started to analyse how their relationship with their social media software might have an impact on the way they transacted commerce. "Now you had people sitting at home investing in companies via their mobile phone. And you couldn't do that before. So what was changing in their minds?"

His publisher talked Clapperton out of the psychological approach and asked him to look at the practical implications for the young manager. "So we re-angled the proposition to how we managers could take advantage of the changing behaviour of the customer." The result was 'This is Social Commerce'.

Whether or not the front end of the social commerce - selling wine, haircuts, rock concert tickets - has anything to do with technology, Clapperton's point is "try doing any of this without the technology". It's technology that has given business the opportunity to engage in a type of commercial strategy and access to markets that were previously unavailable to them. "The technology enables small businesses and their customers to become a community, communicating with each other in a way that two decades ago would have been revolutionary, but is now commonplace."

It's important that software engineers understand social commerce, says Clapperton, because this will have an effect on their products and how we interact with them. "One company I have dealt with is a jeans company and they had identified that one blogger was responsible for generating $5,000 worth of business for them per month. But the interesting thing was that the Web marketers then took the view that this was good and responded by asking if he had many likes on Facebook." The answer was "yes, he's got plenty of likes on Facebook, but actually he's getting you $5,000 worth of business per month". This is what Clapperton calls "the disconnect", where you are so close to the platform that you can forget what it's for. "And the danger for the developers of the technology is that it can become an end in itself." It is this kind of digital detour that 'This is Social Commerce' addresses, "and I hope to steer people taking their first steps in such a venture from being sidetracked by secondary issues."

Clapperton concludes that there is a real danger of getting too focused on process, whether business or technology, and losing sight of where the process is supposed to lead you. The point of business is to generate more income but the idea of social commerce will find its own niche. "It's not going to take the place of people getting in cars, going to offices, having meetings and so on. But social media, especially in the commercial sphere, will hopefully start to move us away from the unnecessary meeting, the unnecessary email and get us transacting more efficiently." *

'This is Social Commerce' by Guy Clapperton is published by Capstone, £12.99

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