Social Business Model - The Sunflower
Social Business Model – The Sunflower
Social Business Model – The Sunflower

In order to tap into the true potential of social media, businesses will have to make a cultural investment – and begin the process of evolving into social organizations.  This integration of social communication within/across organizational ecosystems is becoming a more tangible possibly as companies and non-profits begin to embrace emerging technology while developing more strategic approaches to social media.

There has been some great thinking and model development in the area of social business design. David Armano developed a compelling Hive Mind Visual during his time at the Dachis Group – it speaks to the need to move away from the information silo mindset towards a more collaborative approach, where sharing information across the organization becomes the norm. Jeremiah Owyang at Altimeter Group has  presented some excellent analysis of the five primary social business models. His social business framework and matrix delves into pros and cons of each model and offers great “behind the scenes” insight.

The Social Business Sunflower Model might be considered a hybrid:

Social Leadership

Similar to hub and spoke models, there needs to be a social organizational leader that feeds the internal core. Depending on the size of the organization this role could be C-Suite i.e. Chief Social Media Officer, or simply a social media manager in a smaller business. The key here is to empower a role that becomes responsible for key strategic social business elements such as social media strategy, education/training, guidelines, etc.

Internal Structure

The structure around the social leader is more organic in nature, similar to the honeycomb model – where functional social teams work within their departments (under the mentorship of the social leader) to craft initiatives that are relevant to their respective audiences.

Here are some examples of what that might look like within an organization:

  • A group of employee blog ambassadors that facilitate the exchange of communication and ideas across the internal staff audience
  • A person in HR that helps drive recruitment and engages/manages online dialogue with potential candidates
  • A CEO or small business owner that fuels conversations via a personal blog
  • A group of corporate bloggers that share insights from different departments
  • Front line employees that connect with customers via Facebook or Twitter
  • A distribution manager that posts shipping schedules or notifies customers of delays via social tools
  • A sales manager that crowd sources product improvement ideas from customers and prospects
  • and so on…


The final layer is made up of the distinct audiences that each organization serves. Each petal represents stakeholders that influence (or are influenced by) the organization – it’s products/services, social media initiatives, business objectives, etc. It’s critical to build deep knowledge around each of these groups – understand demographics, where and how they play in the social media sandbox, what content are they interested in, what buying questions they have, etc.

Social media shouldn’t stem exclusively from one department – it needs to reach out from across the organization, touching audiences in manner relevant to their information needs, social channel preference, etc.

The sunflower represents an organic approach to social business – Relevant content stemming from the center of a collaborative, educated and socially aware organization reaching out towards select, deeply understood audiences.

Make sense? Is your business evolving in this direction? What are some of your real world challenges?

About the Author

Mark Smiciklas
Mark Smiciklas is a Digital Strategist, author and President of Intersection Consulting; a Vancouver based digital marketing agency that teaches organizations how to leverage the dynamics of the web to achieve business goals. Mark is an established marketing and social media practitioner recognized for his visual thinking and practical strategic approach. You can connect with him on Google+.
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  • Jbernish

    How do you keep non-communications specialists from going “off message?” Not everyone within an organization may get Twitter, or the more relaxed tone and scaled down content of blog posts. How do you manage that conversation flow without editing their voices?

    • Good question. Not every person within the social business structure needs to actively participate in the communication process – some people will not be interested in social channels or may not have the inclination to write or publish other content.

      I believe the key here is to empower those that ARE interested though guidelines and training. Staff that are not “getting their hands dirty” still need to be aware of how social media might impact the business and they can still participate through listening, facilitating the development of content, providing support, etc.

      Your question also brings up the need to understand how HR fits into the mix. The employees in an active social business need a different skill set – organizations can either develop existing staff through education initiatives, mentoring, etc. or balance the need for incremental skills through the infusion of new employees.

  • It's crucial to understand the cultural context of the landscape you are in.

    • Absolutely – social business is more about cultural change than tools, tactics, etc.

  • This is also good for people as well as the business. I have been supporting the creation of Jazz models of working (self-organizing) for 35 years. I think it is also the base of a healthy Democracy because people can think better for themselves and be discerning about voting. So for me what you are talking about here is the base of The Responsible Business—healthy for business, for workers, and for democracy. Great piece.

    • Thanks Carol.

      Yes, I agree – a well designed (and executed) social business model should benefit all stakeholders. People are an important part of any working structure – but I think there is even more pressure on HR within “flat” organization models compared to traditional hierarchies. More free form and open communication environments demand special types of employees, both in leadership and staff roles.

  • I feel this post as an innovative thought that helps in finding the better practices any online business can adopt. As you discussed in the final lines about Audiences, I agree that is tough to know where exactly your audience are but companies who want to find out such things need to have some research people to trace to such information. If someone don't like this idea they miss the opportunity to grab their audience tendency. What do you think?

    • Great point about research Raj. Building deep knowledge around your audiences' social channel behavior and information/content needs is really important – assumptions here could misdirect your strategy. Ongoing traditional research i.e. surveys, private discussion boards, etc. is one way to supplement social search and technographic data.

  • I see a lot of parallels here with basic project management organization, e.g. the social organizational leader sounds like the champion, the internal structure are members of a cross-disciplinary project team, and the audiences (or petals) are stakeholders.

    • Great analogy Amy – maybe looking at social business through a project management lens would help organizations make the process more attainable or manageable?

      • I suppose it is hard to say for sure until someone gives it a try. But I think it is definitely worth a bit of research. There are a number of well-established tools for project management. If one or more could be harnessed to this process, then it would certainly provide a springboard for a social business model execution and save some head-holding.

  • This is an interesting model to look at at.
    While I agree that this would work in an ideal world, I feel that too many companies are not ready to move to this level of organization just yet.
    Too many companies are still keeping social media in it's own silo. The silo may be the marketing or PR department which has access and talking points to some of the other departments, but too many companies are structured so that full communication does not occur between all departments. It would be great if everyone and every department could work in tandem, but I see it being a while before most companies adopt this style of operation.
    We can all dream though.


    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos (

    • Hey Sheldon – Thanks for your comment.

      I agree that the tipping point is somewhere down the (long) road. At this stage it's important for business to build some understanding around the potential benefits of more open communication models. Hopefully, through study, education and dialogue organizations will see the possibilities of affecting their bottom line through things like work flow efficiency (cost savings) and deeper audience engagement (revenue) – at least to the point where they can justify running some social business pilot projects.

  • It's a good model, however there is a gaping hole in it. Why is search not part of the model? It seems to me that Edelman team members, especially higher-ups like David and Steve ignore SEO. Search is a core function of the web, and while many PR and social media types continue to ignore its power, companies embracing search as part of their processes are dominating. Just saying :)

    • Amen, brotha.

    • Hey Adam – Great point. I agree that search is critical – from a social business perspective it tends to be included as a strategic or tactical component under monitoring i.e. using search to “listen”, as a research tool, etc. Instilling a mindset where each social team is also charged with developing keyword/SEO strategies around each audience makes a lot of sense. Thanks for the insight – time to build on the model :)

  • Thanks for the interesting perspective. I'm convinced the key barrier to successful social media integration into an organization is getting its leaders to understand how external conversations are an extension of internal ones — that silos and org structures lose much of their utility in modern workplaces, except for access to domain-specific information and influence. (For instance, you absolutely need only a few people reporting to the CFO to have access to sensitive employee pay information, or some of the more sensitive employees will spend much of their energy consumed in pay envy … or pay embarrassment!)

    I was interested in the Influencers shown as a petal in this flower. Until recently I would have gleefully tried to pluck it off your chart and tell you that influencers are a myth, especially in social media. But I've recently found some compelling evidence that Influencers do indeed exist and have sway. I'll be talking about that on my own blog shortly, for what it's worth.

    When I do, I may ping you to get your opinion.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking post. I'm loving where you're going with this!

    • Thanks Jeff – Glad you enjoyed the post. Interesting comment regarding the mythical nature of influencers. I feel this is the most complex audience to understand and nurture – it takes time and patience to identify and build relationships with influencers in an authentic way. Many companies probably don't have the appetite to make this kind of investment – they may prefer to stick with the legacy approach of “pitching” to perceived influencers…here's a sample of our stuff, it's great, now please write about us and tell all your friends. Not sure how well that works :)

  • I confess I am impressed by the design of this kind of organization, it is really a kind of “social media dream” when implemented correctly.
    However, thinking about the “dream” element, do you think it is realistic for business to adapt to this kind of business model despite their size? I think particularly about big corporations, where changes usually take very long to happen on any layer. And also, do you think this business model would be optimal for every kind of business?

    Personally I can say that my biggest challenge is surely to “educate” managers and employees on the real potential of social media, as right now, in many environments, it's still sadly seen a sort of “cool toy”. Things are changing, and are of course going to change even more in the future, but it will take time.

    • Hi Gabriele. I agree the model represents the perfect world…and we're still a long way off.

      Social business models will definitely not work for every organization – but, in my opinion, not due to size…more as a result of culture. I agree that large organizations might be more rooted in their thinking and, as a result, be less flexible to this kind of change initiative. On the other hand, with the will to do it and the right leadership in place, bigger firms have the resources to make it happen.

      However, certain cultural environments will always be a barrier to adopting a social business philosophy, regardless of size. Organizations that don't have a passion for their audiences, don't really care what their customers think, have closed or silo approach to communication, etc. probably can't (or don't want to) embrace social business.

      • Thanks for your reply, and that's why I love working in a startup company, changes happen at lighting speed compared to monolithic corporations. Sure we may lack resources to commit to more radical changes, but with the right mindset things get dramatically easier!


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