CEOs Need to Be on Social Media—So Why Aren’t They?

This post was originally published on Fast Company.

These days, it’s a rarity to find someone who’s not on Facebook—unless that someone happens to be a Fortune 500 CEO.

A new analysis from CEO.com shows that the heads of the planet’s most powerful companies still view social media as a distraction, if not an outright liability. A full 61 percent have no social media presence at all. Even those who are on Twitter, Facebook, and other networks rarely join the conversation.

Consumer trends, meanwhile are heading in exactly the opposite direction. Globally, more than two billion people are now on social media. The average user spends nearly two hours a day on social platforms. Studies have shown that millennials watch more YouTube than TV, and three out of four consumers say social media impacts their buying decisionsThere’s little question that these trends will continue while more and newer social patterns emerge.

So for CEOs, this begs the question: Social media is where your customers are—shouldn’t you be there, too?

You are not your company’s marketing department

Granted, change doesn’t come easily, especially at the top. For many executives, time—or lack a thereof—is the primary obstacle to social media use. Plus, many CEOs simply reason that they already employ marketers and social media strategists to oversee that part of their business with skill and dedication. Why should they jump into that fray themselves?

All this is compounded by the ROI question: perceptions linger of Twitter and Facebook places as where people share breakfast photos, not where serious business takes place. Finally, there’s the very real fear of screwing up. Executive gaffes can and have become the stuff of Internet infamy, from Tim Cook’s grainy Super Bowl pic to Marc Andreessen’s recent remarks on Facebook’s plans in India.

What’s rarely heard, however, is the other side of the argument: the benefits that can accrue to CEOs who use social media well, even if they aren’t posting all the time. Social media, used correctly, can be an executive productivity tool, a global broadcast channel, a source of consumer and competitor intel, and a PR vehicle. To be sure, my perspective is informed by the fact that I run a social media management company. Still, with hundreds of employees and more than 10 million users, I’m as busy as the next CEO and struggle with the same challenges of time and resources. Here’s my perspective from the front lines on the value of social media to CEOs.

Meet your customers (in real time)

Each morning, I start my day by looking through a Twitter feed that I set up to monitor any mentions of my company, Hootsuite. On a typical morning, I see plenty of raw, unfiltered commentary from users on what we’re doing right and, of course, what we’re doing wrong: requests for new features, complaints about the odd bug, product support questions, even the occasional high-five for a job well done.

While this may not sound earth-shattering, getting insight like this used to require professional focus groups and analysis. Social media now gives CEOs a direct pipeline into what their customers are thinking and doing—in real time, with no spin from publicists or middle managers. Better still, it takes minimal time and effort. A minute of flipping through a Twitter stream, and I have my finger on the pulse of our customers.

Build trust in here and out there

The era of CEOs remaining aloof and in the shadows, never mixing with mere mortals, is over. Today, building trust with customers and rapport with employees requires offering up a real, human face for the brand. Social media represents one of the most powerful ways for CEOs to do this, efficiently and at scale.

T-Mobile’s CEO John Legere has mastered this. He knows exactly how to to leverage a little social effort to leave a big impression. When a random Twitter user in 2013 shared praise about T-Mobile’s data plan (and regret about being locked into AT&T’s service), Legere deftly chimed in:

In fewer than 140 characters, he showed customers that someone real was at the helm of the company and looking out for their interests. This Twitter exchange was in turn picked up by dozens of news outlets as evidence of T-Mobile’s progressive leadership.

These perks reverberate internally as well. When CEOs post on social media, nearly 70 percent of senior professionals report that it makes the company a more attractive place to work, according to Weber Shandwick and KRC Research. Social media is a way to keep the lines of communication open with staff and compress the kind of corporate hierarchies that normally inhibit exchanges between CEOs and frontline employees.

Again, the reward-to-effort ratio here is huge. Without ever calling a meeting or hosting a presentation, it’s possible to make an immediate connection with your team.

Broadcast to the world, on your schedule

Yes, social media is an intimate tool for real one-to-one dialogue. But it’s also an endlessly scalable platform for broadcasting messages to mass audiences. Want to share excitement over a new product with the world? A quick Facebook post makes a standard press release look arcane by comparison. And when these updates come from the CEO’s account, they carry an added layer of authority and gravitas, which helps the message spread even further.

Case in point: When my own company was in a period hyper growth, adding hundreds of employees a year, we faced enormous hiring challenges. So we turned to social media. Using the hashtag #HootHire, we seeded news of an upcoming hiring fair on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn, using my personal accounts as well as company accounts. The updates went viral, and we ended up with thousands of candidates lined up at our door—incidentally, exactly the kind of tech- and social-savvy applicants we were looking for.

Ultimately, though, the greatest motivator for CEOs to get on social media may be simple necessity. Social media represents a cultural shift, not just a technological one, and it’s already made the leap into the workplace. From now on, it’s just going to expand its footprint there even further. McKinsey researchers estimate that $1.3 trillion in value stands to be unlocked by companies who figure out how to apply social technologies in the years ahead—not just as marketing tools, but in sales, customer service, and internal communications. In the end, it’s very difficult for a CEO to guide this transformation without “getting” social media on some level—ideally a personal one.

As for lingering concerns about time commitment and social media security, I can confidently say technology has caught up. Plenty of tools out there, including ours, are built expressly for businesses. Advanced filters separate signal from noise and pinpoint the social media conversations that matter while they’re still unfolding. Team functions allow messages to be assigned to staff for follow-up or put into queues for approval. Analytics can show reach and influence of sent messages, while compliance tools automatically filter out problem posts.

It’s worth noting that last year President Barack Obama launched the first presidential Twitter account. If the commander in chief, with all the security risks and time constraints of that role, has decided to make social media a priority and found a way to make it work, it may be time for CEOs to take a second look, too.

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