Social media: Walk before you run

Jenna Woodul post by: Jenna Woodul

As I look at the 2012 schedule of social media events for the SF Bay/Silicon Valley area, I think about how this week used to be about a relatively few events. Now we have online registration for dozens of events per day in numerous large venues. People have a lot to talk about. Brands tout their efforts and reveal their results, some of them getting a lot of press.

For those of you who haven’t started using social media yet, perhaps you feel quite pressured. If your company is late to the party, you may sense that you’d better hurry up and get it done. But I’m here to say maybe you should slow down. This isn’t something that gets done. You’ll need to walk before you run.

Why do it?

Are you sure what you’re looking to get out of it? Maybe your management has directed that you start a Facebook page or buy a community platform for your site; but that’s not a good enough start. Has anyone specified the purpose, other than keeping up with the competition?

You may be looking to spread the word about your company, but starting up a social venue isn’t the same as traditional marketing. You’re not going to send out a press release, set up a few interviews, and suddenly get a crowd who comes around and sticks around. Nor is it the same as advertising, although ads can certainly help with a kick-start.

If you want to encourage customer loyalty, you may be on the right track. But keep in mind that if whatever crowd you attract to “like” you via traditional means is only a number. If those people don’t actually continue to interact with you on a regular basis — especially in the case of Facebook — you really might as well not have started it up the venue in the first place. Frankly, you’re wasting your money.

Maybe you’re hoping to learn more about how people use your product — what they want and need. Good. Who will be stimulating the conversation so that you actually learn what people think? Remember that people who come into an un-hosted, empty room tend to stand around the edges looking at their phones or watches. It takes someone to start things off, facilitate the conversation, ask the questions. How will you track what you learn and what will you then do to distribute that information out to your organization? And most importantly, how will you make it worthwhile for the people who gave you these ideas? Won’t they be expecting to hear what you did with them?

Maybe you’re hoping to save money on customer support calls. So you plan to have a presence on Twitter and on Facebook instead of setting up your own customer support venue. That’s a great idea if your constituency is hanging out in those places. Keep in mind, though, that on Twitter, people expect a response within an hour or two. Is your customer support staff available during non-business hours? Are they used to communicating with people in the public view? Especially frustrated people who want help right now and if they don’t get it, plan to tell all of their followers about your failures to help. Are all your escalations plans in good shape? (Especially for after-hours?)

How about increasing sales via promotions, coupons, and even direct sales? That’s definitely worked well for some companies. Are you able to track sales that result from these efforts? Are you prepared for possible volume spikes? Is customer support at the ready for any snafus?

Have you lined up the resources?

If you don’t have social media expertise in your company, are you willing to hire it? You’ll need people with experience — and that includes strategists, hands-on community managers, social engagement specialists, and moderation. But you’re also going to need champions and specialists on numerous cross-functional teams: customer support, marketing, legal/compliance — and maybe IT and product marketing. Can you line up all those folks and get their commitment?

If you can’t round up them up and agree on a strategy that they all support, you may fail. It turns out that 56% of Twitter brand followers hope to get customer support. If you don’t have the connection with customer support solidly in place before you start, or if your engagement specialists give different answers than customer support would give, you’re presenting a fractured face to your customers. And you may cause a lot of internal friction with customer support and legal, among others.

What’s this party about?

I don’t care if it’s a party, a meeting, or a funeral. If people are getting together, it’s social. And that means someone needs to be the host or facilitator or DJ or chair. Each gathering also carries its own set of social expectations. A picnic is not a formal dinner; a beer-bust is not a wake (well, maybe sometimes it is). You’ve probably spent a lot of money on your brand, and you can run down a list of its attributes. Whatever those are, you have to figure out a way to reflect them in your social efforts. Is someone doing that? Are you clear about what the social culture is going to feel like to people who get involved with it?

Who’s hosting the party?

If you’re in social media, you need to be talking to people — and you need to acknowledge them when they talk to you. So who will do the talking? And how will you make it clear to people that you also want to hear from them? That’s good manners, for one thing. But also good sense: Facebook, in particular, is always modifying their algorithm, but basically, if your users don’t continuously reaffirm their interest in you, they stop seeing your posts.

So this is isn’t just a project or a campaign; this is a long-term relationship you’re entering into. People need to get something out of it and you need to keep them interested. Who’s going to be keeping them entertained and aware of your interest in them? If you’re just planning on posting one special after another, you may be better off sending out an email newsletter; it’s much cheaper and probably more effective for your purposes.

What’s your company culture?

And while you’re thinking about how to personify your brand attributes, how’s your company culture? I ask, because if things feel very protectively shut-down in your company’s own internal communication and connection with the rest of the world, you’re heading for problems as you get involved with social media. People sniff out fake really quickly. When they ask questions and get no answers or pat answers, it falls flat and they call it out. Can your company take the heat of criticism and negative comments?

Because stuff will happen. All the best companies are going to run into social media crises of varying levels as they get closely involved with customers. What these companies do is to anticipate crises, prepare for them, and respond to them as directly, quickly, and honestly as they can. If regulations prohibit you from talking about certain topics, say so; people understand that.

Our experience is that trouble invariably starts up after-hours or on the weekends. Can your company rise to the occasion? If your usual escalation contacts are unreachable, what’s your plan?

How will social media work with everything else you’re doing?

Is your community or Twitter feed or Facebook Page going to exist completely separately from everything else you’re doing to market yourselves? That’s going to make it much less effective. Ideally, your company’s so committed to your social media plan that you’re including it in all your promotional efforts, your support plans, your public relations calendar, and your packaging. Naturally, this could require significant alteration of existing policy, process, and internal communication. Is your company ready to change or even reorganize?

Can you stay on one foot, ready to pivot?

At some point, you’ve no doubt planned a party that never clicked. Or maybe you planned to have a quiet gathering that spontaneously turned into a wonderfully crowded celebration when your relatives brought some plus-ones and a volley ball net. The truth about social media is that you’re never sure how well your plans will go over. You need to be flexible and open to change when the people get there. You try things and see what people think of them. If you’re not getting the response you envisioned, you tweak your approach and keep at it. It’s a daily process of watching and listening closely to how people react (or don’t) to what you lay out for them. So don’t feel pressured to get social media done. This is a new way of life — the kind of change that takes considerable commitment and preparation. Take it a step at a time.

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