Innovators in Social Media

It started out with a simple question, on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter: Who should we profile as a Voice of Innovation for social media? Names poured in. Some commenters treated it as a vote, some as an essay contest. Others, including marketing maven Seth Godin, objected to the whole exercise. "Sorry to be a curmudgeon," he wrote. "But I really like BW best when they lead the discussion, not referee it."

Still, this process was bringing in names—lots we'd never heard of—and telling us about people doing all sorts of things with social media. What was wrong with that? Only one thing. As some commenters pointed out, we cast too wide a net. Social media, after all, extends from freewheeling entrepreneurs who build new software applications to consultants laboring inside giant corporations. It includes people who use it to push a product and those who use it to further an idea or just themselves. How could all of these innovators fit into a single category? They couldn't.

So we divided social media into four categories and picked a representative of each. They are:

1) Toolmasters: Imaginative techies whose schemes and applications open new doors and lead to insights. Our toolmaster is Noah Brier, who works days in New York at Barbarian Group, an interactive marketing shop. By night, Brier, 26, pieces together new social-media apps, including Brand Tags, a Web page that shows brand names and invites visitors to describe each with a single word or phrase. The more a word is repeated, the bigger its type, making it simple to see what folks think.

2) Eyes to the World: People innovating with social media to help others. Beth Kanter is our pick. She uses every avenue on the World Wide Web to raise funds for Cambodian children through her own charity, the Sharing Foundation. And she shares what she learns with nonprofits everywhere. Kanter, 52, is also a Net pioneer. A longtime employee of the Boston Symphony, she plunged into the Internet in the early 1990s. She started tapping friends—and friends of friends—through her blog while adopting two Cambodian children in 2000.

3) Crowdstrappers: Entrepreneurs or consultants who harness new approaches in social media to reposition or invigorate businesses—either their clients' or their own. Here we select Eric Brown, who has turned his apartment business in Royal Oak, Mich., into a social media laboratory. Brown, 49, has no training in social media. But he believes in openness and hopes that the ease of communicating through blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, can turn him into a better landlord.

4) Hidden heroes: These are people working inside old-style enterprises and use social media to change the culture and operations. Our choice is Scott Monty, who heads up social media at Ford Motor (F).

You'll see more on the first three nearby. Meantime, here's a fuller story on Monty.

When Ford came looking last year for a social media maven, Scott Monty had an answer for the auto giant: No. Monty, a consultant in Joseph Jaffe's Crayon consulting company, had been living in Boston for 20 years. He got to work with lots of blue-chip clients, from Coca-Cola (KO) to American Airlines (AMR). Why move to work inside an auto company—in Detroit?

Then he started thinking. "Here was one of the most storied brands in American culture asking me to do what I liked doing specifically for them, and I said no. I'm still shaking my head about that." When he reconnected with Ford, he said yes—and since July, Monty has been busy on blogs, on Twitter, and in the hallways of Ford trying to revive the culture of a suffering industrial giant. His boss, Chief Executive Alan Mullaly, compares the transformation of Ford to "changing the tires on a car going 60 miles per hour."

Monty's challenge, as he sees it, is to communicate to the rest of the world the same lesson that he learned himself: that Ford is not a stodgy company tied to the past. "I realized that I'd fallen victim to the very thing that Ford was trying to combat," he says. "There were assumptions I'd made that just weren't true anymore. These are the things I struggle with every day. We've got a big perception problem to overcome."

His first goal is to "humanize the brand, giving Ford as many faces as possible." The most prominent face, of course, is Mulally himself, who appears to be a willing experimenter. Last month at the Detroit auto show, Monty says, he collared the CEO coming out of a meeting and asked if he would answer some questions on Twitter.

"What's Twitter?" Mulally asked.

After Monty explained, he asked his followers on Twitter for questions for the Ford CEO. Mulally stayed with him and gamely answered a few. (True, there's no sign of him yet on Twitter, but that could be a good thing: The guy is dealing with 2008 annual losses of $14.6 billion, and sales that fell 40% in January.)

Monty says he wants to "democratize social media" within Ford, deputizing tens of thousands of employees to represent the company. They have blogs, of course, and have reached out to all tech and green bloggers. But the challenge is less about technology, Monty says, than changing the culture of an organization, making it so that people aren't afraid to speak up. "It's like being at a dinner party," Monty says. "If someone says something derogatory about Ford, do you just sit there? No, you respond."Eyes to the World: Beth Kanter's prolific fundraisingCrowdstrapper: Landlord Eric Brown tunes inToolmaster: Noah Brier and his new social-media apps

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