With social media increasingly becoming part of the marketing mix, David Holt provides a comprehensive guide to the opportunities and issues to keep in mind when planning social media engagement.
The starting point for planning any social media engagement is to go back to the basics of any communications-based discipline. You need to plan who you are trying to reach with what information and to what affect (or ‘why?’). Answering the who, what and why questions must come right at the beginning of any planning discussion.
Don’t be tempted to launch the corporate blog
, open the Twitter
account or create that dynamic 2.0 website if you are not certain what you are going to populate these channels with, or worse, think that the way you communicate with your mates on Facebook
can be immediately applied when you start to use them for business communications. That’s not to say that this approach might not work but it depends entirely on whether you are promoting the latest home entertainment gadget to teenagers or pitching risk management software to directors in FTSE-100 life companies.
That said, social media definitely opens up a wealth of communication opportunities that may not have been there before. For small businesses, for instance, it suddenly becomes cost-effective to put together regular opt-in newsletters because they can be distributed electronically and supported by mash up engines which draw in topical material from specific online news outlets which you can tailor to ensure they fit with the profile of your target audience.
Two-way dialogue with a larger audience becomes possible through blogging and discussion forums on your website or attached to social networking offerings like LinkedIn
. Some businesses may indeed choose these new communication channels because they want to reach Generation Y which is easier to reach through Bebo
than the Daily Telegraph. Some consumer products are being launched this way already rather than via traditional media outlets. Others recognise the unique qualities of new online channels, for example Childline
recently launched a ‘white board’ message board service to enable troubled children to express their feelings in pictures rather than words in a highly secure web environment.
Businesses may well be trying to engineer a deeper engagement with their customers and these new social media channels can enable them to do this in a much more cost-effective manner than they could do before they were developed.
Ambassadors in cyberspace
Once your communications strategy has been agreed and if you have established that social media channels fit what you are trying to achieve, you can begin work to enter the brave new world. A good way of approaching any social media plan is to see it as a marathon not a sprint. For a business-to-business offering it might make sense to establish and build your profile through filling out key directors’ profiles on business networking sites like LinkedIn. Once this is done you will have a number of ‘ambassadors’ for your business operating in cyberspace, all with the potential to use their personal network to make connections and links to people you might do business with.
This approach can be quickly amplified by setting up or joining discussion groups which showcase your expertise and offer enough new material to stimulate prospects to enter these groups. Specific prospects can be invited to join your network and by extension your discussion groups. Two-way online dialogue can be fostered in a non-threatening, ‘non-salesy’ manner. Trust can be established based on information you are imparting and industry debate you are stimulating rather than on the straight sell.
Businesses that are good at networking and see the value of it already tend to be natural, early and enthusiastic adopters of social media channels. They see it as an extension of what they do when they attend networking events and yet they can do it from their desktops rather than taking a day out to play a game of golf or attend an industry dinner.
Once you have social media channels up and running be aware that you need to keep on top of them. Checking and responding to your discussion groups or other online forums simply needs to be built into the working day just as email is for most business people today. Spread the load via individuals in your organisation that represent the pools of knowledge or expertise on which you trade. Practise heads, product marketing managers or the heads of specific divisions of the company need to take this work on. Even if copy creation is outsourced to a third party it becomes the job of these appointed experts to check content that will go out in their name before it is posted. In this way it is possible to manage the message while promoting the company through simply displaying knowledge of and interest in a particular area linked to your products or services.
If you are nervous about offering all this transparency, be aware that this transparency cuts both way. In other words you will be able to use social media outlets to gather information about what the competition is up to more quickly, easily and cost effectively than was possible before. There are a number of online tools (many of them free) for monitoring and tracking posts associated with an individual or a company. ‘Noise monitoring’ as it is often called is increasingly becoming the domain of PR & marketing teams but it can also inform your managers what their competitors are up to as well. Amplify can help you put these systems in.
It is also worth thinking about the ‘tone’ of social media communications. Many channels imply informality and demand near instant and pithy comment (take Twitter for example). But like any communication that speaks for an organisation it needs to be planned and its implications weighed up before shooting off that message. If you are an employee of a listed business, news of a huge, new order in China may be price sensitive – that quick LinkedIn update could land you in deep trouble with the financial authorities as well as the chief executive. Direct and inflammatory criticism of an individual (rather than that person’s arguments) could result in accusations of slander or even libel.
A centralised system
When and if your company has embarked on social media communications activity the key is to devise a centralised system for publishing content to social networking sites and publishing ‘tags’ to all book marking sites like digg
. If you have a high impact PR campaign about to break, you must be ready to track online coverage, bookmark it and ensure that this coverage is linked back to your website. If you miss the bookmarking window by even a few hours you may find that your competitors may have hijacked interest generated by your story and sent all enquiries that should have been yours to their website instead.
A blog provides the ability to publish regular dynamic content to your audience. However, the blog itself needs to be marketed in order to reach a wider audience other than your regular website traffic. Start by registering the new blog within relevant groups of blog directories (e.g. blog catalogue) which expands its reach. Attach your blog to your social networking profiles so viewers there will also see your blog at the same time. This is especially powerful when participating in forums and LinkedIn groups where the tendency is to ‘inspect’ the profile of members who are creating noise. Use ping notifications to alert search engines immediately and automatically once content has been posted.
Also think about the value of social media activity in terms of boosting your websites’ search engine rankings without the added expense of outsourcing optimisation to SEO specialists. Social media effectively allows you to benefit from the ‘page 1’ presence of higher ranking social media sites. Content should include links to your website to help drive traffic to it. You can optimise further by bookmarking your content with social bookmarking site, creating back links to your website. Back links are the holy grail of SEO. Google sees them as a vote from a quality site to a lower ranked site and thus increases your websites ranking accordingly. You can make your site more social media friendly by planting widgets, such as ‘Share This’ into it which make it easy for visitors to share content they find on your site.
And finally, be aware that social media communications is much the same as traditional communication in terms of discipline but a hundred times faster. This means your online news stories can gain massive attention online and then effectively disappear within days (although it may still be languishing on the fifth page of a relevant Google search). Information is definitely consumed faster and is only kept high in the SEO rankings if it fosters debate and is properly supported by a social media strategy and thereby develops an online life of its own. It also means an ill-considered Tweet which prompts an angry reaction can linger far longer than you wanted it to – damaging your reputation all too publicly in the process.
David Holt is director at online communications solutions provider Amplify.