The consensus at a recent social market leadership workshop for executives was that senior executives and CEOs in particular are not social today. Forrester Research confirms that very few CEOs or board members at top global companies have any material presence on popular social media sites. Our own research of Fortune 500 CEOs indicates a similar silence; very few have a social profile anywhere.

This abstinence, fueled by the more vulnerable, publically traded companies extends even to CEOs of venerable technology companies: Eric Schmidt (Google) is an infrequent Twitterer and not a blogger; Steve Ballmer (Microsoft) does not blog or have a Twitter account; Michael Dell is on Twitter but is not an external blogger. It is also remarkable that neither Steve Jobs (Apple) nor Larry Ellison (Oracle) have a Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or blog presence that we could find.

The senior leader should be social. Here are two reasons: social media’s continuing ubiquitous trend, and the next generation of socially literate leadership waiting in the wings. As the next generation of senior leadership takes its place, consumer trends, consumption, and preferences will change alongside social media. Next-generation CEOs with a firm grasp on social media will speak the new language of their stakeholders and leverage this medium in the differentiated recruiting, scouting of market opportunities, engaging and nurturing relationships with end consumers (think B2B2C strategies) and social CRM.

I predict that in the coming years, a changing of the guards will favor social media over silence. Online users spend an estimated 23% of their time on social networking sites, twice as much time as we spend on any other online activity. Consider where you and many others hear news: less from direct sources such as the newspaper or television broadcasts, and much more through social networks. In 2011 and beyond silence by the desired CEO could be perceived as one of two signals: either you don’t care or you are clueless; neither which is an acceptable strategy moving forward.

End consumers are not the only ones becoming more social, the enterprise is influenced and impacted by social media internally and externally, regardless of size. Social media has the potential to significantly increase a live television viewing audience, and to alter public perceptions of a political candidate, non-profit cause, or an organization’s ethical and responsible behaviors. Look around and ask yourself, can a CEO remain relevant if not versed in the new language of the broad constituents they serve?

The next generation CEO will possess drastically different attitudes when it comes to content and information-sharing within public and private domains. We see definitive examples of these attitudinal shifts in companies who are actively monitoring, reacting and engaging with businesses and consumers about their products, and they are far outpacing competitive peers. In less socially engaged companies, the immediacy of social media is causing long, drawn-out research campaigns or focus groups to be cumbersome and outdated by the time results are published.

A number of our clients are using Twitter to test new product or service ideas; they receive immediate feedback from a broad base of distribution channels, alliance partners and end consumers of their ultimate value-add. They are learning first-hand of unique applications of their products or services and are building and nurturing powerful communities of like-minded individuals. The social enterprise uses a powerful combination of scale and granularity; substantive change comes quickly and in a much more responsive manner than previously possible.

I don’t need a crystal ball to predict how the CEO of the future will use social media. Here are five best practices that many socially engaged CEOs implement today:

  1. They target a defined audience, have a clear reason to be social with something valuable and distinctive to say, establish succinct social expectations, and choose the right platforms.
  2. They enhance paid and earned media strategies with social market leadership that communicates both a defensive and an offensive presence. Defensively, they protect their brand; offensively, they articulate a vision.
  3. They use social media to scout talent, attracting and retaining the brightest minds within as well as external to the organization.
  4. They use social media to become signal scouts via their competitors, thought leadership community, and potential mergers & acquisition targets.
  5. Visionary CEOs implement Social CRM dashboards within their enterprise: customer support uses social media tools such as CoTweet to answer questions; sales organizations use social media to identify more real time, self-opted prospects and read what’s really happening with their customers; savvy marketing teams use social media to identify new channels to connect with new or existing customers.
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