The recent spate of “social media gone wild” stories—like the Weiner-gate circus or the firing of the social media specialist at the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp.—has companies contacting me at a fever pitch trying to get a grip on social media. Business leaders want to understand it, and they want a policy in place ASAP. And for good reason.
1. Be transparent.
Social media provides companies, customers and prospects with unprecedented access to each other. People are talking about your company whether you’re part of the conversation or not. If you choose to participate in social media, be forthright and transparent. Authenticity resonates. Consumers buy from people they trust. Try to pull the wool over customer’s eyes and you will get flamed. Of course, being transparent doesn’t mean giving away your secret sauce. But don’t be afraid to fess up to mistakes, especially if you show that you’re working hard to correct them. Be honest with the community and they will return the favor.
2. Take the good with the bad.
Over time you’ll hear plenty of good things about your brand—plus lies, distortions and factual errors. You can’t control that, and you shouldn’t try. But you can control how—and how quickly—you respond.
A client recently asked us to add a blog to her corporate website, with the ability for visitors to post comments on her blog posts. That’s a good thing: Comments on posts often turn into full-blown conversations, with visitors talking to each other as much as they’re talking to your company. Unfortunately, she wanted to approve every response so she could filter out any negative comments. Her fear drove her to ignore the “social” part of “social media.” Best not to allow comments at all. Such censorship stifles the very conversation that makes social media so powerful and informative. Eventually, people stopped commenting on her blog posts entirely, and eventually, site traffic stagnated—the polar opposite of what a business hopes to gain by leveraging social media.
3. Create a personality.
Establish a consistent “voice” for your social media activities. Are you straightforward and business-like? Humorous? Empathetic? Authoritative? Snarky? This speaks both to your business philosophy and your writing style, tone and content. Simply pushing out press releases will not engage and grow a community. People relate to personalities. In this column, for example (which is also pushed out through our e-newsletter, posted on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and our company blog), the personality is clear: Conversational, a little irreverent, but insightful—or so I hope!
4. Understand the medium—and the business.
Never lose sight of the fact that clients, prospects, employees and the media are all listening to what’s being said. If you do delegate the conversation, make sure the person responsible has the understanding, insight and guidance to be successful on your behalf. Just because that college intern came out of the womb with Facebook tattooed on her back doesn’t mean she knows anything about your business. Less experience means more oversight on your part. Don’t delegate-and-forget. Marketing objectives and brand ideals get lost in the conversation as the intern talks about what’s for lunch in the company cafeteria.
5. Social media can protect your brand.
Many pundits claim that social media has shifted control of a brand from the company to the customer. In some respects this is true. Look at the consumer backlash that The Gap received last year when it tried to change its logo. But through consistency of message and timeliness of response, you can still be the captain of your brand (even if the rest of the world is trying to help to steer). And don’t forget brand evangelists. Build groups of loyal engaged customers. Ask them to become beta testers. Create or invigorate your customer loyalty programs. Lead with special promotions. Show customers and prospects that you care, even when you’re wrong, and that you’re true to your brand principles.
6. It starts with a policy.
I said it before and I’ll say it again. Social media marketing requires a formal policy. But don’t overwhelm yourself. Expect the document to evolve over time. Start with the basic do’s and don’ts, lay out key brand messaging, establish a review and approval process as needed, and clearly lay out consequences for lack of adherence. Note that the policy should extend beyond normal work hours. Fact is, Twitter and Facebook never sleep. Whether they like it or not, employees are representatives of your company around the clock.
For example, after hours, from his personal computer in the privacy of his living room, an employee of a local service provider posted scathing comments on a competitor’s blog about some sub-par design work. The competitor easily tracked the employee back to his company. The competitor’s legal counsel reached out the next day with a cease and desist. Did the competitor overreact? Sure. But that’s not the point. When confronted with the situation, the employee was surprised. Why? Because nowhere in his company handbook were there guidelines about social media.
But you can bet it’s in there now.