Social networking for businesses is important enough that Google has just launched Pages, its enterprise-facing version of Google+. In some ways Google has also complicated the mission for companies who are trying to engage with their customers and broadcast their message over these complex, intertwined channels. Which is where Sprout Social enters the scene—the firm, backed by Lightbank (the people behind Groupon's recent massive success) has turbo-boosted its offerings so that companies can integrate all of these interactions in one place.
Sprout's maneuver could hardly be more timely, with a bright spotlight being thrown on social media's importance to businesses by Google's initial fumblings, then Facebook-rivaling moves with Pages. And in fact the criticisms being leveled at Pages (inability to have multiple account managers, no transparency about which division of the company is in control of a brand's feed, and so on) are the kind of problems that Sprout's whole business is about. Its new S2 platform adds "personalized dashboards tailored to each user's specific social media" interface, a Group Support option with different dashboards for each section within a company that wishes to use the social feeds ("beyond the marketing department" as Sprout's press release puts it), and all the necessary permissions controls that mean different groups and managerial levels can have different authorites. That last is important all by itself, as more and more headlines pop up of accidental or inappropriate tweets being broadcast from company accounts.
But Sprout S2 goes way beyond this—it includes task or "assignment queues," which means a flagged negative tweet, for example, can be brought to a manager's attention and the queue item kept open until the manager has responded and, perhaps, the marketing team has made a follow-up. Aware that social media managers often have to respond on the hoof, there's also an iPhone app and an upcoming Android one.
We spoke to Sprout's CEO, Justyn Howard, and he explained that the update has been in the works for about a year, and was based on internal thinking and, appropriately for such a product, customer feedback. Sprout is careful with its customer statistics: "The number we're using is 'thousands,' and we're not disclosing actual numbers—several thousand paying customers," Howard says, while noting that some of the biggest names in online news and communications are existing customers.
"I think as an industry we're still kind of early—but I think the enthusiasm for what social media is doing for businesses, particularly small businesses, is higher than ever," Howard says. "[Lightbank] early on helped us understand what was important to the businesses, what kind of thing they were asking for, as that was part of the whole purpose of starting Groupon—how do we get more customers through the door. Social is a natural extension of that, but it's one that's only become viable lately."
In terms of future direction, Howard mentions LinkedIn and the way it's allowing its customers to post from a business page and Google+'s business Pages. The plan is to develop from the early "monitoring" phase, which was how early on businesses viewed social media, through engagement where a dialog could be opened up, to measurement of the kind of social interactions that are going on to give feedback to a company how its public image is doing, and also to help identify the kinds of customers that businesses should be engaging with. "The thing we're conscious of, and that we're making sure we plan for, is that social is getting spread further across an organization than it was a year ago," Howard tells us. "Moving out of just the marketing department, and moving into sales and support, and the executive management and product teams. We want to make sure that we're able to serve each of these audiences with the experience right for them because in many cases it's very different—what support needs out of a social media management tool is very different than what sales or marketing needs."
In one swoop Howard has shone a laser directly at the early weaknesses of Google+ Pages, and he's given a roadmap for how the service may evolve—following directly in Sprout's path. There's a pressing need for Google to do this too, because they need to quickly empower enterprise users to get advanced control over their Pages offering, lest they abandon them and devote more effort to Twitter and Facebook, and the need is because, as Howard notes, "consumers have become very expectant that companies will respond."
He continues: "If I send a tweet to, say, Southwest Air, then I expect to get a response and as this happens more and more, then businesses are able to seize an opportunity to create a relationship where one wasn't possible before—to create advocates out of people that could've been detractors."