If developing a broad-based strategy isn't the right thing to do, how should organizations proceed in their exploration of social media? Since organizational wants, needs, and goals are diverse, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Trying to recommend a single social media approach for all enterprises of every size, purpose, and strength of brand makes as much sense as recommending a single Web approach or marketing strategy.
While there is no road map, there are some best practices that can be derived from recent social media experience and the lessons learned from more than a decade's history exploiting the Web throughout the enterprise. I believe there are four first steps that are necessary for larger organizations to exploit (and not misstep) in the new and ever-changing world of social media:
- Step One: Charter a cross-functional Social Media team. Call it a sharing forum, a steering committee, a working group, a learning forum, or any other title that fits your organization and emphasizes the team's role is consulting, best practices, and education and not approval, control, and execution. The role of each team member may be to execute and monitor a department or division's social media efforts, but the role of the team should not be to control or run the enterprise's social media programs.
Make sure this team is staffed with people who are senior enough to make decisions and influence policies, but not so senior that that they can't give time or focus to helping others understand the benefits, drawbacks, and processes necessary to support social media programs.
Do not task this group with developing a "strategy" but instead charge them with collaborating, testing, learning, sharing, measuring, and monitoring. The purpose of this group shouldn't be to review and approve social media efforts (which will stifle creativity and agility); instead, charter the group with establishing guidelines, coordinating efforts to avoid duplication, and promoting shared learning.
Representatives should come from all major corporate communication functions, including (but not limited to) Brand/Marketing, PR, Market Research, Human Resources, Customer Service, Information Technology, and Shareholder Relations.
- Step Two: Establish the brand as the foundation of your social media efforts. One of the first things the steering group should do is to make sure all of the organization's Web 2.0 efforts are grounded in the brand. If every person within the enterprise proceeds without the proper foundation, your communications will be diverse and your brand can become diluted.
Remember that soon (if not already) consumers are going to learn more about your brand from each other and from your online behavior than from your advertising. Ensure everyone who will execute Web 2.0 efforts understands how your brand is unique, how it is different than the competition, and it's personality--professional, friendly, feminine, masculine, quiet, loud, energetic, reserved, mature, youthful? The brand platform should not only guide the tone of the actual communications that occur via social media sites and tools, but also should be considered as part of the strategies that are developed.
Too many organizations make the mistake of assuming that every employee understands the enterprise's brand or brands. With social media demanding a greater distribution of communication responsibilities and more transparency, it is vital that everyone who will be communicating with groups of stakeholders understand how your brand talks, what it believes, and how their communications can support or harm the brand.
- Step Three: Consider a full-time social media director or team. Some large enterprises are hiring social media leaders. One term that's been used is "czar," but I really dislike this label. Your social media consultant shouldn't rule and control the efforts but rather ought to inform and consult on best practices.
The reasons to assign a person or small team to social media are the same as the reasons most enterprises currently have a Web team, media buying team, and email team. These are all specialties that require attention and focus, and trying to develop deep knowledge and expertise throughout the organization doesn't make sense. And as with these other areas of expertise, the purpose of the social media specialist isn't to decide what should be done throughout the organization but to consult, recommend, participate, execute, and measure. The specialist may also be responsible for any tools (such as blogging applications or forum software) that must be centrally maintained, managed, and funded.
Ironically, as I was writing and researching this blog post, I came across Jeremiah Owyang's post from today on this very topic. He is maintaining a growing list of Social Media Strategists within large organizations. At the current time, his list is over sixty long, with more names appearing every week.
- Step Four: Commission advisory boards. Chances are your decision makers aren't swimming too deeply in the social media waters, so find the folks within your organization who already have a passion for social media and are making it part of their everyday lives. Form a group of employees who are already engaged in social media, and tap this advisory board for knowledge and experience. Involve them in planning and execution, but don't expect them to make business decisions since, depending upon their level of experience, they're likely more expert in networking with friends than creating corporate efficiencies or emphasizing the nuances of your brand. (Added benefit: Involving employees is good for morale and provides excellent development opportunities.)
Once you've gained some confidence in your initial social media efforts, you might consider additional advisory boards consisting of customers and/or vendors and partners. Transparency and collaboration are the foundations of social media, and there's no reason to ignore the good ideas that can come from outside your organization.
When engaging stakeholders (both internal and external) in collaboration, it is important they understand why they're participating, how you'll use their input, and how you'll reward their time and effort. It is also vital that you set expectations as to what your enterprise will supply and what it will ask of the participants, and then you must commit to meeting those expectations. (There is nothing worse in social media than a formerly loyal employee, customer, or partner who feels jilted by the brand and then vents on Facebook and blogs.)