Welcome to another in our One on One series of conversations with some of the most thought-provoking entrepreneurs, authors and experts in business today. Clara Shih, CEO/Founder of Hearsay Labs, spoke with Brent Leary in this interview, which has been edited for publication. To hear audio of the full interview, page down to the loudspeaker icon at the end of the post.
Hearsay Labs is a software company that develops social CRM applications to help B2C companies find and engage customers across Facebook, Twitter and other social sites. Shih is also author of the bestseller The Facebook Era: Tapping Online Social Networks to Build Better Products, Reach New Audiences, and Sell More Stuff, which has been featured in The New York Times, Fast Company and CRM Magazine, and is being used as a textbook at Harvard Business School.
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Small Business Trends: Can you tell us about your background?
Clara Shih: I was originally an engineer. I worked at Microsoft and then at Google and Salesforce.com. While I was at Salesforce.com, as a side project, I developed the first business application on Facebook. That is what led to the opportunity to write The Facebook Era.
When the first edition of my book came out in March 2009 and was well received, I knew we had reached the tipping point with social media and that there was a tremendous opportunity, but also a lot of challenges that companies had to address. I decided to leave Salesforce.com and team up with a college friend to start Hearsay two years ago.
Small Business Trends: What are some of the changes you have seen in social media since you wrote your book?
Clara Shih: More than ever, we are seeing social media pervade every company, every business and every industry. Just like the Internet era before it, we are seeing the Facebook Era change the conversation, interactions and relationships that companies have with their customers. As we have seen before, new customer paradigms require new solutions.
Hearsay is focused on businesses that have local branches and representatives. Take your insurance agent or local Starbucks. All of these [local] businesses are part of a larger corporate entity.
For a long time, there’s been tremendous infrastructure and support in a physical sense [for such companies]. But in terms of social media, it’s been the Wild West. Franchisees, insurance agents and realtors are left to their own devices when trying to create profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.
Hearsay sought to change that. We have built a system that allows corporate to empower the field with content, campaigns and relevant, timely messages. The field can personalize this in their own voice and push it out to local audiences.
Small Business Trends: What changes have you have been surprised by?
Clara Shih: I have been most surprised by how quickly Facebook has spread. It’s really amazing what can happen in just a few years, where it goes from a niche website to something that everyone is talking about.
Small Business Trends: What hasn’t changed enough?
Clara Shih: Businesses are still grappling with how to make social media work for them. How are you going to make sure that you mitigate these risks, whether it’s legal risk, compliance or operational hurdles, so you can tap into this tremendous opportunity?
I think 2010 was about social media strategy; there was a lot of talk. This year it’s all about social media execution. We are seeing companies mobilize budgets, hire social media teams. It’s a really exciting time and place to be.
Small Business Trends: You started Hearsay in 2009, but the official launch took place in 2011. Why did you spend so much time under the radar?
Clara Shih: We felt that staying under the radar would help us focus on building our product and working with our early customers. Six months ago, we started betas with large brands and almost all of them asked to cut the pilot short and roll out to full deployment. We knew we had stumbled upon something great.
A lot of companies have dabbled in social media. This is the year that companies get serious about it. This means adopting platforms that address more than just a single pain point—that take the entire organization’s needs into context.
Small Business Trends: Talk a little bit about the decision [for Hearsay] not to have a traditional website.
Clara Shih: We decided, not only do we want to practice what we preach, but it’s the right move for the company strategically. Our customers are already on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter; that is why they come to us in the first place. What better way to serve them than in a highly targeted personalized and social environment?
Small Business Trends: Do you see that as a trend?
Clara Shih: I think [social media] pages are the new websites, especially if you are a small or midsized company. A friend of mine owns a nail salon in San Francisco. For a long time she struggled with her website, because she is not technical and didn’t have time or money to really build a website or maintain it. A few months ago I showed her how to use Facebook. She set up a Facebook Page, and now updating her “website” is as easy as updating something on her wall. She is able to connect with her clients in a way that she never could before. She doesn’t have to worry about SEO, SEM or any of these other acronyms that she doesn’t understand.
Small Business Trends: Peer out to the future, maybe a year or two. Where are we going to be in the Facebook era?
Clara Shih: Consumers and marketers are both becoming more sophisticated when it comes to social media. Companies are going to be accountable for showing results. They are also going to be accountable for what their employees are saying and the legal liabilities and ramifications around the conversations that take place on social media. This is especially true for highly regulated industries, such as financial services.
It boils down to three pillars of success. One is compliance–being able to address and mitigate these risks. Two is content. Content is king, especially on social media. You can’t just create a Twitter page and walk away. You need to continually post interesting, relevant, dynamic content to keep your fans engaged. Third is analytics–being able to measure the return on your investment. These three pillars–content management, compliance and analytics–are what form Hearsay as an application.
Small Business Trends: You can find out more about Hearsayat HearSaySocial.