Sherri Maxson is one of those all-star members who has taken us along for her career as a social media executive at three different brands. She’s been a member since 2010 and a speaker at two different Member Meetings.

With nearly 20 years of professional experience in the digital world, Sherri Maxson’s career started back in 1994 as a web developer when the Internet was still new and shiny — before she would move on to lead social media at three major brands.

As a hobby, she built web opportunities for photographers to sell their art. But her fascination with the web started when her colleagues started creating ecommerce sites for major retailers.

“In the very early stages of ecommerce, it was apparent that people were not as receptive to buying online. What it really proved to me was the importance of marketing online. But this was even way before there was such marketing,” says Sherri.

Sherri says when she started her career the web was still a positive, supportive place to learn from other people.

“There were communities of developers sharing code with each other. It was a really friendly atmosphere and a creative environment. It was very aspirational, and I just fell in love with this space.”

She kept that mindset of learning and building up her skills over the next 12 years as things evolved for ecommerce and new platforms and ideas emerged like Google, YouTube, SEO, and blogging.

“Whatever it was, I wanted to learn it so I had a really strong toolbox to work with,” she explains.

She’s taken her skills in ecommerce and digital marketing with her to lead social at a university, a BtoC, and now a BtoB.

Sherri’s been the Director of Digital Marketing and Social Media for DeVry University and U.S. Cellular, where she lead an award-winning social customer service model. Now, she leads social business at Grainger, which ranked 15th in the Top 500 Internet Retailers in 2013.

But if you ask her, at the end of the day, her strategy for each organization isn’t too different.

“Every company is a snowflake, but it’s still about human-to-human interaction. You’re still talking to people. It’s about making sense of digital for the company and their strategy,” she explains.

She says where each company is unique is how they connect with their customers. For example, at DeVry, they were looking at things from a student perspective, engaging them in word of mouth and activating communities. For U.S. Cellular, it was about mobilizing an extremely large community base with customer service and applying a social business strategy enterprise-wide, which she described at a Member Meeting in 2012.

Her current work at Grainger, a BtoB you might know for supplying your office with everything from paper towels to industrial generators, focuses on building relationships and providing solutions for the people who make those purchase decisions. In her case study presentation at our Member Meeting in Chicago, Sherri described how Grainger’s social strategy is to make their customers the heroes.

She explains one of the biggest challenges for businesses in social is to get around all of the noise and think about the customers.

According to Sherri, “There are tons of ‘gurus’ and a hundred different companies to choose from to work with. But what I think is really important is that the business stays focused on what their strategy and goals are and more importantly, who their customers are and what’s relevant to them. Customer and human insight and the arithmetic really work together. It’s about transferring the goals and the customer needs into social.”

Connecting those business objectives while connecting with people is what Sherri says she loves most about her job. She says it’s energizing to see a team have conversations with customers who are just as excited to talk back.

“We all know there’s a reason we’re all excited about the future of social, and there’s a lot of buzz around it,” Sherri says. But she also acknowledges the need for big brands to see a connection to sales.

“It still has to make sense for the business, and we have to be able to account for the return on social and the value it brings to a company.”

Explaining the value of social is especially critical for bigger companies, but it can be a challenge.

“The value is there, and there’s lots of ways to show it. More importantly though, social media is about having conversations with your customers and listening to the conversations to help your customers. Social is not necessarily a direct revenue channel,” Sherri says.

But it can be difficult inside of a large organization. She says you have to think of the organizational structure, the checks and balances, and the people to work through to earn buy-in. On top of that, there’s a lot more at stake with shareholders, risk mitigation, and liabilities.

Sherri says, “There are also internal collaboration and social networks that have a lot of business value that can’t be overlooked as a part of the strategy.”

But making those connections seems to be paying off.

At Grainger, building relationships through social has helped them see growth.

“We’ve spent the majority of 2013 building the foundation, and we’ve seen some tremendous growth in terms of community size and amplification. We’re really getting the organization excited about social, and we’re starting to get different business units more socially engaged, which has been great,” she says.

One of the most exciting accomplishments for Sherri is seeing customer advocates emerge from the communities they’ve built at Grainger.

“We’ve been working hard on the foundation and keeping our customers top of mind in the process. It’s been great to build customer relationships and see them engage with us and our content in new ways.”

Say hi to Sherri on Twitter, or watch one of her fantastic Member Meeting case study presentations for Grainger and U.S. Cellular.

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