By Graham Thatcher, Director of MCC International.
In the busy world in which we live social networking websites enable us to be reunited with old friends and keep in touch with friends and family with ease.
Yet while every organisation has embraced the web to some extent, most have been quiet onlookers (perhaps blissfully unaware, or a little intimidated) as early adopters explore the commercial potential of social networking.
Right now your customers, prospects, business partners, members of the press and employees (although hopefully in their own time) are frequently logging on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and Linked In as well as specialist blogs, online forums and digital publications.
However, monitoring, managing and making the most of these sites in a commercial sense can be a daunting prospect for the uninitiated, so here are some basic tips on how to get started.
1. Monitor - You don't know, what you don't know
Are people eulogising about your products and services? Maybe they are sharing some common problems that you are not aware of, discussing issues relating to your market, or perhaps they are saying nothing at all. The point is, if you are not eavesdropping on the 'cyber grapevine' then you will never know.
Understanding what is being communicated and where is obviously the first step, so dedicate some time to researching which of the sites represents the most potential to you (don't forget to check out the activity of your competitors).
There are a lot of social media sites out there and the number continues to grow. It is far better to monitor and manage one or two sites efficiently and effectively, than to overstretch and do many badly.
The next and just as important step is to have a strategy and process in place to intelligently feed back the insights you gain to the right people in the organisation in a timely fashion, to contribute to making the best business decisions.
2. Actively engage
Creating a page on Twitter or Linked In, for example, is a very straightforward process and you can be up and running with a basic page in a matter of minutes.
But remember, in doing so you are making a serious commitment and statement. After all, this as an external communication channel upon which people will judge your brand in just the same way as your telephone line, shop/branch, email and website.
In some instances it may be the first introduction people have to your organisation and as ever, first impressions count, so take the time to give the page a similar corporate identity and branding to that of your website.
Once you have built your page you need to start attracting a network of followers, it is not simply a case of 'build it and they will come'. However, many social networking sites are littered with profiles of individuals whose seemingly only raison d'être is to continually grow their own follower lists.
It isn't a beauty parade! It is about attracting the right people to your page and keeping them engaged ongoing. To aid this ensure you clearly advertise links to your new pages on your website, e-zines and email sign-off. If it is a blog you have created you may want to integrate it into your existing website. Also, consider adding them to your printed collateral (stationary and marketing information).
A corporate website that has not been updated for a couple of weeks may be acceptable, but the speed and expected volume of communication on social networking sites is much faster and higher.
New content becomes old very quickly. It is therefore important to ensure that posts are made short and often but not unnecessarily. Don't forget that such 'original content' can have a very positive effect on your search engine optimisation efforts.
Some examples of good material that can be include: information regarding new products and services, urgent updates, press releases, linking to relevant news and articles about your industry on other websites, invites to events, linking to online press coverage about your company.
The list is endless but as with all communications consistency is the key, so ensure everyone who needs to know is aware of what has been posted and when.
For example, your followers may read one of your 'Tweets' (a term used for a post on Twitter) and then phone your call centre to enquire. If the customer service agent is unaware of the communication then you can appear disorganised in the eyes of the prospect/customer.
3. Manage and maintain
Set a process in place for who is authorised to post information on behalf of the organisation, who is responsible for monitoring feedback and responding to it.
Look around your organisation and the chances are there will be members of the team that already have a strong grasp of these sites for there own personal usage. Whilst you may not want them to manage the process ongoing, their insights can prove invaluable to hitting the ground running.
Establish an acceptable usage policy for the use of such site/s by employees in work hours (this should form part of your Internet usage policy).
Similarly, educate employees with regard to the implications of posting comments on their own, and others, pages that could either incriminate themselves, or harm the organisation (especially the use of work email addresses).
Finally, don't be daunted. Follow these initial steps and you will be well on your way to and whole new world of interactions. Social networking is simply another communication channel, an opportunity to learn from and interact with those people that have an impact on your organisation.
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