Putting Theory into Practice – The Challenges and Opportunities of Social Media
By Dan Greenfield
In these challenging economic times, senior management has many concerns. How they communicate to various stakeholders should not be one of them.
But with the advent of social media, executives now have to decide how blogs, social networks and user-generated content fit into their marketing and communications strategy.
We are beginning to see corporations consider alternatives to top down, centralized communications. Where you once had a corporate communications department and a few designated spokespersons, management is now using product development and customer service teams on the frontlines.
Case studies abound of companies like Microsoft, General Motors and Intuit that recognize the value of using social media. These companies are taking advantage of new communications channels. Corporations are writing blogs to extend the user experience. They are creating online forums for customers to deflect expensive calls away from support centers. They are using social networks like Facebook to attract new employees.
Succeeding in the Social Media Age
At Bernaise Source Media, I tell my clients that they essentially have three options when it comes to social media – avoid, delay or embrace. In my opinion, the latter is ultimately their only real choice.
But how? To be successful, you must:
– Define objectives and set expectations
– Assess company culture (tolerance for decentralization, negativity, transparency)
– Understand your customer base
– Implement an employee online communications policy
– Address ethical considerations/codes of conduct/disclosure policies
First and foremost, you must determine what you hope to accomplish – sell more products, reposition yourself in the marketplace, engage your customers. Social media can attract new customers and retain existing ones; it can increase revenues and reduce costs. But don’t expect to play by the same rules. Today’s marketing strategy requires greater candor — a willingness to recognize mistakes and share negative feedback. It’s more about authenticity and less about marketing “speak.”
As I’ve written elsewhere, the use of social media can be a serious mistake for companies with a low tolerance for this type of engagement. Regardless of a company’s corporate culture, social media must be accepted and embraced internally; both employees and management must be educated on how best to implement a social media strategy.
That means creating an online communications policy. With input from the corporate communications, legal and human resources departments, this document must contain the rules of engagement and consequences for non-compliance. It must be broad enough to allow for individual expression, but narrow enough to address the non-disclosure of proprietary information and employee codes of conduct.
The two fundamental principles of an online communications policy are disclosure and disclaimers. Disclosure is what you can and can’t say; disclaimers are the way to make clear that employee statements made online do not necessarily reflect the views of the company.
While an employee online communications policy may result in employees giving their honest assessment about your company’s products, it provides a degree of protection from Sarbanes Oxley and the liabilities associated with creating an “unfriendly” workplace.
Addressing the rules of employee engagement is half the equation; respecting your customer base is another.
For tech companies with a highly engaged, highly computer literate user base, social media is a natural fit. For companies with a diverse customer base, it gets more challenging. What is trendy or edgy to one segment can be offensive to another.
In addition, how do you best allocate marketing dollars across all your sales channels when social media is still in its infancy? During this year’s NCCAA Basketball tournament, CBS Sports did a good job. Their website, geared to older users, focused on news and scores, but their Facebook page with its younger user base was more about community and visitors sharing points of view.
Testing Your Tolerance for Risk
Social media is testing and expanding the limits of communications. But pointing down the path to success, I offer these final thoughts. Social media is a matter of when, not if. Right now, the risks may exceed the rewards, but at a certain point risk becomes necessity, and you will no longer have a choice. At this juncture, inaction will be far more risky. How you manage this risk may very well determine if you remain competitive or become irrelevant.
Dan Greenfield is principal of Bernaise Source Media, a media consulting practice based in Atlanta. He was vice president of corporate communications at EarthLink. His blog Bernaise Source (http://bernaisesource.blog.com) looks at the impact of social media on PR, marketing and the Atlanta business community.