Monday, August 4, 2008

Prevent Social Media Problems Before Exploiting the Opportunities

In the past week, we've discussed enterprise-level social media strategies and suggested initial steps that large organizations consider as they explore social media.

One strategic mistake that seems common is for organizations to seek opportunities but ignore the potential drawbacks of social media. While I am rarely the kind of person to concentrate on the negative, when it comes to social media an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure. Organizations should first focus on solving social media challenges before turning attention to the opportunities. Understanding these challenges is important so that your organization can 1) take steps to avoid or minimize issues, and 2) consider and lessen risks as social media tactics are deployed.

One way to avoid brand troubles was suggested in "First Four Steps Into Social Media for the Enterprise": Ensure those involved with social media execution thoroughly understand your organization's brand or brands.

Implementing Web 2.0 tactics will require that communication responsibility be distributed even widely than in the past. For example, customer service representatives who today speak to one customer at a time may tomorrow be posting information read by thousands. And marketing personnel--who currently almost never engage consumers directly--will soon be employing community managers to speak on behalf of the company to your most loyal and engaged customers.

It's important to remember how vital social media will be in creating and altering the perception of your brand in the minds of consumers. Consistency has always been necessary to build a strong brand, and in the future the number of people communicating for your brand will make consistency even more difficult. Overcome this challenge by instructing every employee involved with social media efforts about what makes your brand different and how their actions matter.

Speak to employees about the brand in practical ways. Don't show them the Brand Strategy bull's-eye, discuss the communications platforms, or bother with media strategies; instead, put attention toward the importance of voice, how the unique selling proposition is realized in their daily communications with consumers, and how their social media interactions can best reinforce the brand personality.

I am reminded of a situation that occurred years ago when I was working with a famously conservative insurance company. Their customer service division was experimenting with its first-ever email responses, and one employee was selected as part of the program due to her enthusiasm and highly personable manner. One of her initial responses to a policyholder who held several million dollars of insurance contained a smiley face emoticon: :) . While complimenting her commitment to friendly service, the employee was counseled on ways to maintain her natural warmth while still conveying the professional and conservative face of the company.

What else can the Social Media Steering Committee do to avoid the problems associated with Web 2.0 tactics?
  • Brainstorm possible Social Media problems: The buzz around social media is so strong that there is often a strong inclination to immediately launch into the "fun stuff," but taking a step back to consider and prepare for the risks is a vital first step. Take time with your steering committee, advisory boards, or other groups to consider the unique challenges your organization, brands, or industry faces with social media.

    You may be in a highly regulated industry, which would speak to the need for more legal involvement in social media planning. You may employ thousands of hourly employees who are geographically distributed, which suggests a need for distance learning so that associates understand your brand and communications policies. Or, you may have many brands with related but subtly unique brand platforms, which would require more care in defining what is shared and what isn't as brands execute social media tactics.
  • Plan for emergency social media response. Don't wait until blogs and Twitter are abuzz with comments about your poor service, your product failure, or your corporation's SEC investigation. Create a plan for when to respond, how to respond, and who is responsible in the event something embarrassing or threatening occurs to your brand.

    As any Public Relations expert will tell you, being too responsive to every criticism or problem isn't the best policy, but there are some PR storms that cannot be weathered simply by battening the hatches. Understanding before an incident occurs when action is necessitated and who will lead the response helps the organization react rapidly and in a coordinated fashion when time is of the essence.

    And don't make the mistake of thinking social media PR issues can be managed using traditional PR tactics. If half a million people are reading or seeing your organization's failure, you cannot successfully combat the issue with communications hidden in the "news" section of your site. Instead, make social media work for you by using the same channels that are carrying the troubling news and information; for example, if an embarrassing video appears on YouTube, consider a YouTube response.

  • Assign Responsibilities for Monitoring Social Media: Creating a social media director position (or a small team) is recommended for larger organizations. Among the many reasons organizations of a certain size need one or more people dedicated to social media is for the purpose of monitoring Web 2.0 discussions. Your brand and organization will be discussed, and knowing what is being said is not only good for the corporate feedback loop but can also provide an early warning of developing issues. Assigning responsibility for social media monitoring to one person or group helps to avoid gaps or duplication of effort.

  • Register Your Brand Names on Social Media Sites: Not only will monitoring social media provide a great deal of knowledge as to what consumers think of your brand, it may also prevent a brandjacking. Might someone not associated with your organization already be speaking on behalf of your brand? If you think it couldn't happen, read about Exxon Mobil's recent experiences on Shel Holtz's blog. A person registered the username ExxonMobilCorp on Twitter and has been corresponding with consumers as if she were an official company spokesperson.

    That drama is still unfolding, but an Exxon Mobil exec has words of warning for other brands: “We need to be diligent about what is being said about you, by you, and those pretending to be you.”

    As Exxon Mobil learned, anyone can register your trademarks on social media sites; no one is monitoring or preventing this from happening. In fact, in many cases, they already have. A Disney fan named Cheri Thomas scooped up the Twitter name Disney, and although she is making no attempt to portray herself as anything but an individual, the Disney organization really should claim their own name. Twitter's Terms of Service provides the basis to do so without much effort, stating "We reserve the right to reclaim usernames on behalf of businesses or individuals that hold legal claim or trademark on those usernames."

    Who owns your names? You may be surprised, and with the list of social media sites seeming to grow by the day, making sure your trademarks remain in your possession should be a priority. Go check your brand names on,,,,, Facebook, Hi5, MySpace, Jaiku, Pownce, Ning, Plurk, and (And trust me, that is just the tip of the iceberg!)
Organizations large and small can benefit from using new and developing social media tactics provided they proceed with awareness of the potential problems. Jumping into social media strategies without first identifying, educating employees about, and preparing for the problems will only undermine initial enterprise efforts.

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