It seems that every time you turn around, you hear something about social media. With all the attention it has been receiving, it feels that in some ways it’s been with us forever, but of course that is not the case. It is a recent phenomenon and its one that’s here to stay.
So, what is social media? Simply put, social media is a way to communicate that uses web-based and mobile technologies to turn that communication into an interactive dialogue, allowing the creation and exchange of user-generated content. Those italicized words are the two key concepts to focus on: interactive dialogue and user-generated content. With just about everyone carrying a “smart phone” today, we all have become both producers of and consumers of social media.
Imagine a major disaster like an earthquake or tornado. In the “old days,” the emergency responders would arrive, and then your organization would send their public information officer (PIO) to the scene to garner the facts. The PIO would write a formal press release, and then they would hold a press conference to inform the anxious and waiting press of what had just happened. Aw, doesn’t that sound quaint?
Today, of course, it is a completely different story. The disaster occurs. Every observer pulls out their smart phone and snaps a photo and/or shoots a video, which they then upload to YouTube or Facebook. They may post (or “tweet”) on Twitter about it or post it to any number of other social media sites. If your communications team is not getting out your message immediately, then the media and the community will quickly stop listening to you – or stop waiting for you – and will instead follow the tweets and posts where the perceived “real” information is located.
The August 2011 Virginia earthquake quickly proved that point. People didn’t turn their TVs to CNN or their local news to get information on the scope of what was happening, they logged onto Facebook and Twitter. Early warning to locations as far away as New England via social media channels beat the earthquake itself. That could legitimately be a FCC “truth in media” approved slogan for social media – “Faster than a rolling earthquake.” And it’s not just about initial reactions, details about the magnitude and minimal damage spread through the same channels. Information from the USGIS website got into the hands of people not because everyone knew where to go, but because it was shared and re-shared tens of thousands of times. Overall, far more effectively than any other communication channel that we would today consider part of our national Emergency Alert System (EAS).
That’s our world today, and the genie is never going back into the bottle. Today, the most critical thing for you and your executives to understand is that everyone is a reporter and everyone can tell your story. We are in a brave new world.
What is Your Social Media Strategy?
So what will be your strategy in this brave new world? If you don’t have a strategy in place to lead the charge into social media, you will be at a loss when it becomes overwhelming. A strategy allows you to determine your interaction and measure success points in your social media journey.
As with most strategies, you need to determine your starting point – where do you begin? First, ask the most important question: “Why are you doing this?” This is the same question we use to drive our exercise design process, and upon asking it, we find that it provides most of our answers. Asking that question works here, too. There are two things to think deeply about:
- What do you want to get out of it? Think carefully about this. What do you want this new communication tool to do for you? It’s not enough to say, “We want to do social media.” Pick goals that you can measure against to gauge the effectiveness of your efforts.
- What level of freedom do you need for your social media communications to accomplish your goals? Who needs to sign off on the social media plans to give you the free reign that you need to accomplish your goals? An irreverent and free-wheeling social media plan might sound “cool” but might also be impossible given compliance and regulatory constraints. Alignment and balance are key.
- What kind of commitment are you willing and able to make? Bear in mind that this is not a casual commitment. You need to obligate resources to make the effort successful.
Four Steps to Develop Social Media Engagement
Social media engagement is comprised of four steps:
You must first begin by listening. Listening (real listening) is a learned skill, and usually requires a mind shift for most people and companies. This means that you don’t talk at people but rather listen to actual customers and real people. What may seem like a “one-to-one” communication format, such as writing in a blog, becomes a “one-to-many” conversation because of the social nature of that communication. Everyone learns what you are saying – in real time.
Listening is an important skill in a social media context or, for that matter, any other setting. When you listen:
- You learn something (if you are open).
- Your product and services can become better because of it.
- The interaction can be more positive and valuable than traditional advertising.
- Your customers get what they want.
- Everyone can win.
A few good social media places to start listening include:
- Blogs (yours and others).
- Review sites such as Yelp!, Google Reviews, Epinions, Angieslist, and TripAdvisor.
- Google Alerts.
Remember that social media is all about engagement. It is not talking at people, but speaking with them. This is what we call a “conversation.” Engagement is a two-way street with two things going on: talking and listening. It is important that when you speak, you speak as a peer rather than just as a company spokesperson.
This means, then, that you should not use social media to push your message. Engagement is NOT a sales pitch. That is a sure-fire way to alienate your audience. Concentrate on listening and engaging the people who are investing in your writing and social media presence, and don’t focus on the “numbers game” of how many friends or followers you have. Focus on quality rather than quantity in these interactions.
Your tone is one of the most important elements of successful social media engagement. You must come across as a real person and not a faceless corporation. Public profiles of your community managers can help humanize the interactions, avoiding the use of PR like language, and complying with the accepted norms of the social media channels can help.
So, once the conversation begins it is probable that not everyone will like everything that you do or say, and in this brave new world, they are likely to talk about it - online. Now what? What do you do if you don’t like what they say, especially when they say it on your site? For example, let’s say a customer slams you in a comment section on your Facebook page. What should you do?
First of all, repeat after me: “Not all negative comments are bad” (you can do it!). Often there is at least some truth in the comment and you can learn from it. One word of advice here – I generally do not advocate removing negative comments. This can often stir up a hornet’s nest of reaction and can create quite a backlash. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. Part of your strategy should include determining what you will do when negative comments are made. Do you contact the commenter directly? Do you converse with them online, publicly? What is your tone? Negative comments can often help improve your service or product or bring something to you attention that perhaps you didn’t know about. On the other hand, you should remove obvious inappropriate comments, such as libelous content, hate speech, or profanity.
Successful social media usage means not over-sharing the good stuff (“Look how much our clients love us!”) and not engaging in never ending battles with negative posters (aka Don’t feed the trolls”). It also doesn’t mean that you have to cave in to every complaint. If you’re delivered a product or service and legitimately done your best to satisfy a customer, the conversation will show that and savvy consumers of social media content will recognize that.
Your management is going to ask their own question: “What are we getting out of this social media stuff anyway?” What is your return on investment (ROI)? Here are seven ways to measure ROI:
- Set a goal. This should be in your strategy and includes the answer to “why we are doing this.”
- Add up the numbers. Count up who has subscribed to your offerings, including RSS feeds, followers, friends, and “likes.”
- Gauge awareness. You can do this by asking them what they know about you. This can be done with a simple one- or two-question survey on your site, which can establish a baseline of what your followers are thinking about your company, an issue, or possibly a product.
- Measure participation. Who is engaged? How are they engaged? How many are posting to your blog? Are they the same commenters over and over? Or do you see new and varied commenters? How many are re-tweeting?
- Count your mavens. Who passes your word on? Mavens are the folks between your passive users and your active users. They may never make comments, but they will take your message and pass it along. This includes things such as blog post trackbacks, “Tell-a-friend” pass-alongs, or sites such as Digg or Del.icio.us.
- Listen to comments. What are people saying “on the street”? Remember, this is listening. Be ready, willing, and able to respond openly, honestly, and speedily.
- Revisit your goals. Modify and adjust them when appropriate and repeat the cycle as needed.
Social Media is NOT a Passing Fad
The Pew Research Center just released a study, “Why Americans Use Social Media.” The authors noted that an amazing 66 percent of online adults use social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, or LinkedIn. Roughly two-thirds of social media users say that staying in touch with current friends and family members is a major reason they use these sites, while half say that connecting with old friends they’ve lost touch with is a major reason behind their use of these technologies. Those are powerful statistics and further emphasizes that increasingly large numbers of individuals are comfortable with the tools and the technology.
Finally, remember that while some of the tools may come and go (remember MySpace?), this communication media itself will continue to grow and improve, and refine its abilities and offerings. While the ROI of social media may vary widely, one thing is certain: The value of building relationships and communicating quickly is priceless. It is critical that your company gets involved, stays involved, and participates in this new wild and wooly world known as social media. Don’t let others get too far ahead!
Regina Phelps (@ReginaPhelps) is an internationally recognized expert in the field of emergency management and contingency planning, and is the founder of EMS Solutions. She is the author of Emergency Management Exercises: From Response to Recovery – Everything You Need To Know To Design A Great Exercise.
Abbas Haider Ali (@abbashaiderali) is a self-described social media wonk and Enterprise 2.0 junkie. His day job is VP and technology evangelist at xMatters, Inc where he works with Global 2000 companies on combining relevance engines with their day to day processes to optimize them through effective communication.