New research from a multi-disciplinary team presents an innovative social media playbook for complex business negotiations

It’s not often that one comes across a truly novel piece of strategic analysis, but new research from James K. Sebenius, Ben Cook, David Lax, Isaac Silberberg, and Paul Levy is just that. Their extensive and novel new analysis attempts to draw preliminary lessons on how to think of, and use, social media in complex negotiations. 

Their essential point is that rather than think of social media only as a risk or nuisance, negotiators should eagerly examine what social platforms suggest about their counterparts and the network around them, just as they would any other available information source. As the authors note, failure to do so “is a stunning blind spot,” while adding that “social media can be ethically harnessed to shape the negotiating stage to one’s advantage — or to avoid catastrophe.”

Social media, of course, is not just a new medium — it’s a universe unto itself, with its own rules, codes, and norms, which can seem daunting to an outsider. For too many negotiators, the complexity of these ecosystems leads them to forego mining accounts and their networks for competitive insight. The authors suggest a new paradigm that even experienced social media users can deploy to their advantage:

This new paradigm requires negotiators to update their strategies. Because the digital era is changing every aspect of dealmaking, negotiators need to take a comprehensive, “3-D approach” to understand and prepare for how the process can be disrupted and used. Particularly in today’s hyperconnected, 24/7 world, the reality of negotiation almost always extends beyond primary negotiators to involve other potentially influential parties. Winning strategies must incorporate traditional “at the table” tactics (the 1st dimension), deal design (2nd dimension), and setup moves “away from the table” (3rd dimension) that are essential in shaping outcomes.

In the authors’ view, adapting the 3D paradigm (a model that Lax and Sebenius first proposed back in 2003) can enhance negotiating effectiveness in 4 ways:

1. Social media can help negotiators reliably learn about the full set of parties who may be relevant to a negotiation, including those with potential influence away “from the table.” It often reveals information about these parties’ personalities, interests, perceptions, sources of information and influence, relationships, and how groups may respond to a potential deal. 

2. It offers a mechanism to wield effective influence, both directly and indirectly. That may include framing messages that resonate, invoking credible sources and surrogates, and informing the creative design of high-value/low-cost proposals that respond to parties’ true interests.

3. It makes it possible to mobilize coalitions of supporters who can shape the situation “at the table” by swaying key decision-makers “away from the table” — especially at pivotal moments.

4. Finally, it can be used to neutralize, inoculate against, outflank, creatively placate, convert, or otherwise deal with actual and potential deal opponents.

In their research, claim the authors, they’ve found many examples where this model has yielded positive outcomes:

We’ve looked at the case of an entrepreneur in the legal cannabis production business negotiating with a small municipality where a surprise referendum would have driven him out of business. He won, but we have since demonstrated how he could have waged a more effective campaign using open-source data available freely on social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and local forums (abundant even in this town of 30,000). In another recent case, a hospital CEO in a pro-labor city wielded a personal blog to proactively fend off a multi-year, multimillion-dollar unionization campaign from one of the largest and best-funded unions in the country. (Notably, this use of social media as an honest and effective communications tool is a far cry from the kind of morally dubious union-busting tactics that recently have attracted backlash, including compiling detailed dossiers on individual employees and other forms of quasi-legal surveillance.) Or consider how a small, agile group of opponents employed social media to catalyze a local movement against the planned 2024 Olympics in Boston — that was supported by the governor, mayor, and many prominent citizens — and convinced the state to withdraw despite being outspent 1,500 to 1.

These examples are a warm-up to the principal focus of their article, which is an analysis of Amazon’s experience with community leaders in NYC after it selected a Brooklyn location for its second headquarters.

Famously, 238 different locales competed for HQ2, and in the end, Amazon selected Brooklyn. By most accounts, the deal would have been a positive for the borough, with an estimated $27.5 billion in net new tax revenues and 25K+ new jobs. The project was, moreover, well supported by city and state leaders across the board.

However, soon after the selection announcement, a local opposition movement began to take over the headlines, using the HQ2 decision as a proxy for all of their grievances against Amazon. In that process, State Senator Michael Gianaris, who had been a neutral voice throughout the process, soon emerged as the epicenter of the opposition. As his vote was crucial in the oversight board that would control the deal’s implementation, his negative stance did not bode well for the future.

At this point, the authors’ analysis gets very interesting, because they suggest that even a cursory glance at Gianaris’ social media connections would have indicated to the Amazon team the people driving his about-face on the deal. As they note:

While we are not privy to Amazon’s internal discussions, its deal team could have employed social media analysis to learn that Gianaris’s account was utterly surrounded by deal opponents like the Twitter users aligned with Ocasio-Cortez (in blue); Zephyr Teachout, a DSA-aligned author (in green); and other anti-Amazon activists (in pink). As an online lobby, this coalition of anti-development users was drowning out all other voices.

Perhaps shockingly, they highlight, “Amazon’s own account — and those of its supporters, also in orange — appears utterly peripheral to the extensive Twitter conversations swarming this key pressure point (Gianaris). Few allies show up with the ability to respond online, address concerns, correct falsehoods, and make the positive case for HQ2.” Interestingly, the article notes that Amazon’s team was in virtual seclusion during the negotiations and “may well have had no internal integration with Amazon’s social listening and digital analytics functions.” In other words, cut off from the social media intelligence teams at HQ1, the HQ2 team failed to understand the opposition and ultimately failed in their negotiations with New York City.

Based on their analysis of the Amazon errors, the authors posit four strategies negotiators need to consider in order to maximize the value of social media intelligence:

1) Use open-source information to learn about the full set of parties, understand their personalities, interests, perceptions, and relationships, as well as to carry out extended party mapping more systematically. Such insights can enable negotiators to wield effective influence, both directly (“at the table”) and indirectly (“away from the table”), and so help to mobilize potential supporters as well as to deter and/or neutralize potential opponents.

2) Seize the initiative online – before, during, and after the process – by cultivating likely allies and minimizing potential attack surfaces (including seemingly peripheral third parties or tangential concerns, especially for negotiations in the public eye). 

3) Integrate the digital and physical aspects of deal strategy. As potentially critical as the social media dimensions of negotiation may be, they should not be considered separately from the other elements of strategy and tactics. 

4) Take ethical and privacy concerns to heart. Abuses can not only be morally wrong but also costly in reputational, financial, and legal terms — and can backfire. As digital norms continue to evolve, negotiators should pay close attention not only to the letter of privacy regulations and laws, but also to their spirit.

In all, this strong article is a solid look at an issue that gets little, if any, attention in general management and strategy literature, though there is serious research taking place in a related field known as Social Influence Analysis (SIA). The goal of SIA researchers is to develop techniques for understanding how influence diffuses through both monoplex (person-person) and multiplex (person-group) networks. Not surprisingly given the reach and impact of social networks in China, some of the leading work in this field is being done there. Indeed, while SIA is a young and complex field, it is already used in fields such as viral marketing, online recommendation analysis, healthcare community dynamics, and the diffusion of political propaganda.

As this new research suggests, negotiation strategists might consider exploring SIA to better understand how social influence occurs in multiplex networks adjacent and relevant to strategic deals. Indeed, in both theory and application, there is fertile ground for further research by this team and other social media scholars, and one hopes this valuable initial set of lessons will influence both public and private negotiators.

The Research

James K. Sebenius, Ben Cook, David Lax, Ron Fortgang, Isaac Silberberg, and Paul Levy. A Playbook for Negotiators in the Social Media Era. Harvard Business Review, Apr 16, 2021.

Kan Li, Lin Zhang, Heyan Huang. Social Influence Analysis: Models, Methods, and Evaluation. Engineering, Volume 4, Issue 1, 2018, Pages 40-46, ISSN 2095-8099.

Posted by:Carlos Alvarenga