Digital strategist and CEO of The Female Social Network Fi Bendall shares her insights on how to bring your board into the digital age.

    How do you convince more Australians to buy pineapples? Once, you might have hired a celebrity to front expensive ads across broadcast, print, outdoor and digital channels, hoping their enthusiasm for the fruit was believable. Or you could hire four influencers to tell a million friends. They’d have to be smart, down-to-earth and share persuasive stories that resonate with their audiences, motivating them to buy the fruit.

    “We’ll get four Aussie mums to reach 1.6 million more mums because they’re the right women,” explains Fi Bendall, behavioural digital strategist and founder of The Female Social Network (TFSN). “We’ve found what makes someone the type of person to change opinions — a recommendation economy can make or break your business in the digital era.”

    After the four Australian mothers engaged by TFSN visited several pineapple farms in early 2018, they shared a simple story with their peers: replace oranges with pineapples at half-time during kids’ sport because the yellow fruit contains bromelain, an enzyme said to have anti-inflammatory properties and help with recovery. Bendall reports a million Australian mothers adopted the pineapples-at-half-time trend and sales spiked.

    The apparently grass-roots pineapple campaign was supported by a cloud technology platform and an algorithm that mines 900 points of audience personality data to identify women with a high Advocacy Promoter Score (APS). “The old Net Promoter Score (NPS) is flawed,” says Bendall. “If you shop in a fashion store they’ll ask for an NPS score out of 10 that’s supposed to give an indication of your satisfaction. Many businesses base bonuses for executives on them. We’re saying a better measure is to identify the people who will actively go out and advocate for you — people with a high APS are passionate brand advocates and market persuaders.”

    TFSN identifies advocates — “We call them effective opinion leaders,” says Bendall — whose recommendations are accepted as genuine by millions of other women. Although reach is important, brand advocates with a high APS don’t necessarily have the highest follower count on social media. Stating that many so-called “influencers” often don’t influence at all, she says women with a high APS can get better results because they’re genuinely engaged with their audiences, whether that’s in mainstream social media, business or other community networks. They’re often mothers, too.

    More women lead small businesses — why not big ones?

    Bendall’s motivation for launching TFSN and its APS was to support other mothers in business, as she saw more of them choosing the startup path, often out of necessity. “My [former] husband had gone bankrupt and I was juggling a baby while working because I couldn’t afford childcare. I was walking around London, hiding my pregnancy, drumming up money for a business. So I understand what women go through and why they start businesses.”

    She also rejects the perception that the typical startup founder is an 18–27 year old man. Her view is that 50 is the new 30 for women running businesses. Bendall says that at 50, women have raised their families and have more time and energy to put into working under their own terms.

    For several years, she’s lobbied to get female entrepreneurship on the government’s agenda, presenting data and case studies to several federal and state small business ministers from Bruce Billson to Michael McCormack (now deputy prime minister) as well as NSW Minister for Women Tanya Davies. Billson is now an advisor to TFSN and Davies has participated in roundtables organised by TFSN on female entrepreneurship.

    “They don’t pay you to turn up; it’s all on your own coin,” Bendall says. “We need politicians to understand women, what they go through, why they start businesses. When I started my first business in the UK it was during the Thatcher era. She certainly didn’t help single parents like me.”

    Governments and organisations have gradually improved career prospects for mothers with changes to parental leave and flexible work, but as Bendall notes, Australia is a fair way off equal pay, equal opportunity and actual equality for women. “I believe in a merit-based system, it’s not about quotas. Attitudes need to change, because the old mindsets are still the biggest inhibitors. There has to be a stigma about not treating women as equal. If you look at retail businesses, all of which are selling to women, you’ll find they have the biggest female workforce, but many of them are employed in low-level jobs or HR or marketing — hardly any are on boards.”

    Encouraging innovation

    Remarking that ex-prime minister Turnbull championed tax relief for entrepreneurs, Bendall suggests governments need to get better at encouraging innovation and improving access to capital beyond bricks and mortar securities.

    “We can learn from other countries, like the UK’s Enterprise Investment Scheme where investors in business get a 230 per cent tax relief on R&D against their investments,” she says. “We need to make it easier, not harder.”

    If governments can improve access to capital, she argues, more Australians will innovate here rather than abroad. Corporate governance, audit and risk with directors’ responsibilities could also be updated to reflect the economic conditions of the technology era. “Maintain the legal frameworks and codes of conduct, but enable behaviour that encourages more weighted and variable risk parameters,” she says. “It’s a complex task, but one needed to shift mindsets from old to new ways of designing better business.”

    Responsible business

    “We have a social responsibility in business beyond relying on government,” concludes Bendall. “Private business skills, people, technology and profits should all contribute to positive societal change as governments become more administrators than innovators in creating change.”

    TFSN and Bendall Group are members of B Corporation, a certification body that rates organisations on social responsibility and brand trust.

    “You’re measured on the brand trust that comes from what your employees tell their friends and families,” says Bendall. “I still think BCorp organisations could talk more about employee attitude, engagement and transparency. Younger workers, especially, want organisations to be clean. They don’t want to work for companies that are mean, and they know it doesn’t take many people to change your reputation.”

    Fi Bendall’s digital insights for boards

    Digital is not just about marketing. You need a social media crisis response plan you can roll out within seconds, an employee digital plan, digital distribution and logistics. Digital touches all of your business and should be integrated.

    Correct your mistakes publicly. We should all apologise if we do something wrong, so every organisation needs “dark content” ready to go when it experiences a crisis. You need approved parameters in advance for what you can say; and be prepared to respond quickly, humbly and factually — not seeing what you can get away with. You can’t wait two weeks to issue a statement from the board or CEO.

    It’s not about how technology works, it’s what it can do for your business. Focus on what it delivers, not on how you make it work — leave that to the geeks. That said, digital and technology education should be mandatory for every board member.

    Big data strategy is just a label. Delve into what your data strategy actually is, and what its outcome is.

    Do you have a chief digital officer (CDO) on your board? For years I’ve been championing that there should be a CDO as the number two to a CEO on a board. It’s a different role to the chief technology officer (CTO). A CTO is involved in enterprise systems while a CDO is far more around people and the user experience of digital across the whole business.

    Think like a media company. It’s really important to have a strong media/communications role on the board because otherwise marketing sits in a corner. You can’t do that anymore — everything is so transparent now.

    Women are the biggest group of influencers and recommenders using social networks. Don’t think social media is only for youth, because women over 35 social network prolifically.

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