Aaron Pearson

The Social CEO

Q&A with Aaron Pearson, executive vice president at Creation North America

Marketers at organizations of all sizes have been beating a path to Twitter’s door almost since it launched, working feverishly to distill their prose into 140 characters or less to sell widgets, build brand and engage the hearts and minds of their target audiences, whomever that may be. Yet, it turns out that one of the biggest obstacles for many organizations in their quest to leverage the channel are their own CEOs.

Mike Porter, Ph.D., director of St. Thomas’ Master of Science in Health Care Communication and Master of Business Communication programs, launched a research study in 2012 along with then MBC student Mary Nhotsavang and Betsy Anderson, Ph.D., from the University of Minnesota, to explore business leaders’ use and perception of social media. The study was published in the Journal of Communication Management in 2015 (vol. 19, iss. 3) and the outcome was surprising.

Senior executives using social media (Twitter) tend to engage in one-sided conversations in a two-way medium. Further, most CEOs appear to be using more formal language than general Twitter users. These factors, combined with the low credibility and value of social media by senior managers, may indicate the best future hope for social media credibility with executives will be neutral as it eventually aligns to become a more “‘traditional’ channel of communication.” Three years after the study was launched, is this still the case? Porter tapped the expertise of Aaron Pearson, executive vice president at Creation North America, for his insights.

As you know, the wheels of academia turn slowly, making this data about Twitter specifically somewhat outdated. Can you talk about the evolution of senior management use of social media in the last couple of years, in comparison to the snapshots provided in this paper?

Senior management engagement on social media – particularly CEOs – is finally gaining momentum. My parent agency, Weber Shandwick, has been tracking “CEO Sociability” every two years since 2010. The latest report, published last May, found that 80 percent of the CEOs from the world’s top 50 global companies are now engaged online and via social networks, compared with 36 percent in the 2010 study. If we look at this from a pure social networking standpoint, excluding YouTube and company websites, we still see a big jump. Engagement on social networks by these CEOs was only 16 percent in 2010 and 18 percent in 2012 but jumped to 28 percent in 2014. That’s among the world’s largest companies. An online survey of 1,700 executives from mid-to-large companies that Weber Shandwick conducted with KRC Research in a similar time period found only 15 percent of respondents said their CEOs participate in social media.

How do you account for this?

One problem is that business leaders themselves don’t yet believe social media conversations have a significant impact on their company’s reputations. The respondents to that online survey ranked mentions of their company in social media last out of 14 factors affecting corporate reputation. Yet the trend overall is upward. In fact, studies have shown that business leaders believe social engagement by CEOs helped convey innovation, improved the CEO’s reputation with journalists and put a human face on the company.

I don’t want to lose sight of a point in your earlier article, however, that corporate executives didn’t seem to use social media to communicate in a particularly human way, which misses the point of the medium entirely. Business leaders want prominent, positive stories about their companies, but nobody wants to read or watch stories about faceless institutions. The public cares about real human beings, with interesting strengths along with some flaws.

The movie “The Social Network” didn’t win an Academy Award for telling the story of Facebook. It’s about Mark Zuckerberg, the “Winklevii” and Eduardo Saverin. Richard Branson humanizes the Virgin Group and has a following of 8.2 million people on LinkedIn. His last post, a friendly story about what Virgin looks for in new employees, received more than 1,300 comments. Not enough executives do this.

What do you see as the trajectory for these platforms in the next 9 to 18 months?

There’s a lot of innovation around the paid advertising components and in making the experience for users more engaging and visual.

Take Twitter. Brands are enjoying a steady stream of innovations designed to help us promote products, services and content on the platform in proliferating ways, with promoted tweets specifically designed to encourage app downloads, or to generate leads, or track from clicks to conversion on brand websites with tags. Of course, that promoted content can include executive blog posts or video. They and Google just partnered up on a new open source approach to delivering content to mobile users faster.

Meanwhile, visual platforms continue to grow. For example, Instagram is the fastest growing social platform for many brands right now. Locally, University of Minnesota start-up spin-out Vidku raised $17 million early this year on the strength of its Flipgrid social video technology. I would expect to see executives harness visual influence platforms themselves.

Is looking further out even a reasonable thing to consider?

There isn’t much point in conjecturing too much about the next big platform because most business communicators are going to want to spend a few months experimenting with anything new before encouraging executives to adopt them. Long-term investments in growing a following on LinkedIn and YouTube are reasonably safe. Twitter seems to be making more changes but is nevertheless established in the culture. We’re going to see more with video and more with virtual reality and we’ll have to see how that translates to executive engagement. Beyond that, I’m confident that executives who are able to demonstrate they are genuinely interested in the concerns of their stakeholders and who are willing to risk some authenticity in their communications are likely to do well regardless of the evolution of these platforms.

If you were going to gather data about CEO or other corporate use of social media for similar analysis, what platforms or categories of social media do you feel hold interesting revelations and why?

I would be interested in exploring how executives are experimenting with visual influence on platforms such as Instagram, Vimeo and YouTube. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, for instance, has 60,000 followers on Instagram, which she uses to advocate for female business leaders, and Richard Branson has an Instagram account with 457,000 followers that he uses to visually reinforce his innovative and fun-loving image.

I’m also intrigued by the potential of Meerkat and Periscope, although it’s so early for these live video streaming apps that virtually everyone is in tentative experiment mode, and the platforms themselves are going through constant changes. Nevertheless, they seem well-suited to executive engagement because they can be genuinely social with their feedback mechanisms (real-time likes, hearts, comments), and their lower production values create more informality that makes executives more approachable. Any use cases would be anecdotal at this point though.

What should marketers – and their CEOs – focus on?

Given the fast pace that communications technology is evolving, you just have to keep your focus on the strategic intent of your communications program.

At SXSW Interactive this spring, Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore said he doesn’t try to chase Google’s ever-changing search algorithms; he just tries to publish great content audiences want. The same thing applies here. Communicators can position executives to succeed by finding the intersection of their personal passions and communications talents with communications program strategy. Then you’re in a position to surf these tech changes, recognizing what’s right for that executive as you go along.

And be realistic – there is an opportunity cost of time so a few posts may have to go a long way. Paid promotion of those social posts can help ensure more people see them to compensate in part for lower frequency.