‘Of course, social media is here to stay,’ says Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite, the most used platform for managing social media. ‘But it’s amazing how many senior executives, CEOs, and decision makers remain confused about what social media does and how it can contribute to a business.’

And they’re not alone. Many people – including communications professionals – are a little hazy about how social media can really benefit a business and, in particular, how it can boost internal communications.

Around 90 per cent of larger companies now have an intranet – or 80 per cent depending on which survey you read, but we’ll accept that it’s a significant majority – and increasing numbers are using other social media channels for communication. Yet it can feel that businesses are using Instagram, Periscope, Snapchat, Twitter, Pinterest, Yammer and Facebook et al because they think they should, rather than because they’re convinced that these channels are valid communication tools. Then there’s newbie Facebook for Work, which is exactly what the name suggests and is being trialled by major companies including RBS before it’s made available to everyone. It’s already being heralded as the next big thing in internal communications.

But is this wealth of channels giving IC teams just too many mouths to feed? And are they creating a bewildering blizzard of ‘noise’ for employees? Both are possible, but despite those risks, many believe that carefully chosen and targeted social media can cut through the barrage and reach people instantly and effectively. And really, there’s no going back: social media is here to stay and the next generation of employees will expect it at work.

Rachel Miller at All Things IC has researched how companies use social media for internal comms.

Her results showed the phrase ‘internal social media’ includes:

According to Rachel’s research, ‘collaboration’ is the most popular term to describe social media inside organisations, knowledge sharing is the main reason for introducing it and 70 per cent of comms professionals say their companies have welcomed, not blocked, internal social media.

The VMA group’s annual internal communications market survey found that while 40 per cent of the respondents’ organisations use social media in their internal communications, only 43 per cent of comms professionals surveyed believe it’s the future of IC. They’re not too happy about how they use it either: 70 per cent rated their use of digital channels and social media as poor or average. Only 5 per cent say their use is excellent and a meagre 2 per cent rate it as cutting edge.

Like Rachel Miller’s study, the VMA group found that the most commonly used IC channel in businesses is the intranet (91 per cent). Around 38 per cent said they use instant messaging, 40 per cent have ESNs, 21 per cent mobile apps, 19 per cent SMS text messaging and 14 per cent use podcasts.

‘One of the big pluses of social media in internal comms is that it’s “on” all the time, gathering and sharing knowledge,’ says Sequel’s digital director Charles Fenoughty. ‘Used well, social media keeps ideas flowing and keeps people talking. It’s so much more inspiring and direct than a formal meeting where not everyone wants to speak up.’

‘One of the big pluses of social media in internal comms is that it’s “on” all the time, gathering and sharing knowledge.’

Charles says it’s important to look at it the right way round. Don’t ask ‘which of these social media tools could we use in our internal comms strategy?’ Ask instead ‘how do we want to communicate with each other?’ and  ‘which of these tools will give us what we want?’

As with anything to do with communications, your audience comes first.  How do they want to communicate? Which tools do they use and like? And – crucially – don’t let your choice of social media be imposed by a bunch of well-meaning folk who don’t use it themselves. OK, we all know a few middle aged people who are glued to their smart phones, but generally the younger team members are the most social media savvy. Ask them.  Also consider the people you’ll employ a few years from now. The media has dubbed them the ‘centennials’ – the youngsters born since 2000.

Centennials are now turning 16 and they’ve grown up communicating this way. They can’t vote yet but already businesses, governments and organisations are thinking about what these young people will want and need and how they will work and play. Technology is second nature to them; they can’t remember a time without it. Typically, they spend nine hours a day using media and say their smart phones are more important than their wallets. Their phone is the first thing they’d save in an emergency because it’s where their memories are and where they meet friends and nurture relationships. They are connected and have contacts all over the world. While the ‘millennials’, born in the 1990s, may feel themselves to be European, many centennials feel that the whole world is theirs.

And of course it’s easy to generalise, but it’s worth noting that they are said to be less self absorbed and more assured than millennials.

What do the ‘centennials’ themselves say? Sixteen-year-old Jemima (who, incidentally, had never heard the word centennial applied to her generation) says she can’t imagine working for a company where she was couldn’t use social media. ‘It’s like when my dad smoked and he had to go outside the office to have a cigarette. He hated that. It would be the same for me if I had to go outside to check my phone or Facebook. I’d feel really weird if I couldn’t look at it when I needed to. Any company that employs us is going to have to trust us to use social media sensibly.’

Note the use of ‘needed to’ rather than ‘wanted to’ look at her phone.

She added: ‘I’ve heard of Facebook for Work but it’s hard to separate business and private. I don’t see how that would work.  If we have the choice we’ll always check our private account so it makes sense to have everything in one place.’

Elijah, 15, looked similarly blank about being called a ‘centennial’ but has clearly thought about the issues and he’s not a fan of obvious corporate messages on social media. ‘It seems a bit lame when companies try to get their message across on social media – it’s a bit like your mum and dad being on there. They need to let the young people do it. Perhaps every big company should have a few 15-year-olds to manage their social media. I’d do it!’

Many companies are already using social media internally to prompt discussion, publicise activities, make announcements and reinforce core messages. ‘Social media’s not the future. It’s the present,’ says Kathleen Aiken Rojas, Head of Corporate and Functions Communications at BP. Our centennials would agree.

The message seems to be that you have to use social media in internal comms and by the time the centennials are taking their places in your office – just a few years from now – you need to have it right.

By Fiona Allison, Editor, Sequel