Recently, I’ve seen a number of companies struggling with how to get more savvy about social media and social networking, and a few have jumped in to participate, but not in a way that is productive. According to Jeremiah Owyang at Forrester, participating effectively in social media may be even more important in times of recession. In the spirit of helping companies get involved, I thought I would put together a small Starter Kit to help companies get off on the right foot.
I will start with a couple of definitions of what “I” mean by a few of these terms for the context of this article. You can find quite a few definitions of social media and social networking, most of them conflicting. As a result, these are not meant to be definitive industry definitions; they are simply guidelines and starting points to help people understand the basic concepts in the context of this post.
- Social Networking: Connecting with a community of people in your network through services like Facebook and Twitter with various methods of online interaction.
- Social Media: Online media like blogs, podcasts, videos, and news with a strong participatory element through comments, ratings, or other mechanisms. Social media is generated by the people and for the people with content created by anyone with a voice (average Joes, village idiots, respected journalists, CxOs, …) I will also include the above definition of social networking as a subset of the broader topic of social media throughout the rest of this post.
I wanted to start with some basic guiding principles that should be used to guide social media participation particularly for companies. These should apply to participation in most online social media environments and social networks.
- Be Sincere: Sincerity is a critical element; if you aren’t able to be sincere, then social media is probably not the best medium for you. Being sincere in your social communications will increase your credibility, and if you appear to be simply going through the motions, people are unlikely to waste their attention on your messages. Sincerity goes a long way toward believability and credibility.
- Focus on the individuals: Participation in online communities and social media should be focused on the individuals, not the corporate entity. For example, it is OK to have group blogs for a company as long as posts are tied to individuals (real people), but you wouldn’t want to have a blog where every post is authored by “company name” or “admin”. People work at companies, but the real connections and networks happen between individuals. Show a little personality and little bit of who you are from a personal standpoint.
- Not all about you: Socia media is a conversation, which is by definition two-way. In other words, it isn’t all about you, your company, your products or your agenda. Participation involves listening and participating in the broader community of people. Don’t just expect people to help you; jump in and help other people in areas where you have some expertise. If all you do is pimp your products without adding to the broader conversation, people will lose interest in you pretty quickly.
- Be a Part of the Community: Just talking at people isn’t going to cut it in this new social world where the community is critical. You should be a part of the broader community of people with similar interests both online and offline by participating in, but not trying to control the community. Engaging in conversations and when possible actually meeting those people who comment on your content, follow you on Twitter, or friend you on Facebook can go a long way toward making real, lasting connections with people. Attend local meetups, comment on content from people who read your content, engage in online discussion forums, and engage in other places where you can find people from your community of peers.
- Everyone’s a Peer: The days of expert speakers who talk at us while we passively absorb the information with little or no opportunity for discussion are gradually disappearing. This is the old media model: unreachable experts are on TV, the radio, and in print. Now, anyone can publish video, audio podcasts, and online writing while commenting on the content produced by others. Granted, not all of it will be professional quality; however, with an open mind, I think you might be surprised at all of the opportunities to learn from others. We each come into a discussion with unique and diverse ideas, and we learn by listening and sharing ideas with our peers aka everyone.
You don’t need to participate in everything, especially to start. As a matter of fact, I would discourage participating in too many at once. Jump in with one idea to start, try it for a while, learn and build on it. I would recommend starting with Twitter or blogging. After you get a feel for what works and what doesn’t for you, pick and choose a few more that make sense for you.
- Blogging: I recommend having both a personal blog and a company blog. I tend to like company group blogs, especially for small companies, where several people from the company regularly blog about various topics related to the company. The key is not to use your corporate blog only to pimp your products or for press releases. You should be talking about your industry and sharing your thoughts on the broader market as a whole in addition to talking about your products. Become a thought leader in your industry through your blog. Likewise, your personal blog shouldn’t be all about your company. It’s fine to talk about your company (the reality is that we spend most of our waking hours at work); however, this is your personal blog. Branch out a little. Talk about your other passions, especially the ones tangentially related to your work. Make sure your blog contains a blogroll linking to other bloggers you respect; not to have one is really bad form (see the above section: Not all about You). You might also be interested in reading a (slightly dated) Corporate Blogging 101 post that I wrote when I was at Intel.
- Audio and Video Podcasting: Podcasting is a great way to distribute content that doesn’t fit as well into written form. Audio podcasts are really good for interviews to talk to other experts or to record interesting discussions that happen as part of conference panels. I occasionally do Fast Wonder podcasts as interviews with interesting people doing cool things in communities or as recordings of round table discussions. Video is great for demonstrations or presentations where you want to show people something. Screencasts with voice-overs work particularly well, especially for technical topics or marketing videos. I work with our developers to do screencasts fairly regularly for our Jivespace Developer Community.
- Twitter: Twitter is a way to send short format (140 characters) messages to a bunch of people while also reading messages from others. People have mixed reactions to Twitter, but I think that Twitter is only as interesting as the people you follow. If you follow people with interesting things to say, you will probably get more out of the experience. Talk about interesting things (personal and professional), engage in conversations, interact with other people, follow friends and industry luminaries, and have some fun with it. Feel free to talk about your products, link to your blog posts, and talk about what you are working on, but if all you do is pimp your stuff, people are unlikely to follow your posts (again, it is not all about you). Read more about the Beauty of Twitter.
- Facebook: You may be noticing a trend here, but I think your Facebook “presence”should be focused on individuals: people within your company, especially your executives, sharing information. Like with Twitter, people should create accounts and share some personal information along with the corporate information. If you want to have a “corporate presence” on Facebook, do it as a group that people can join or a page where people can be a “fan of” your company, not a company profile masquerading as a person.
- More: The four ways to participate listed above are what I would consider the basics right now. However, there are many, many more ways to engage with your community: Second Life, discussion boards / community sites, Ning, Flickr, meetups and events, MySpace, Bebo, and more. In short, go to those places that make sense for your company. If the industry thought leaders in your market are participating in a social networking site, it is likely that you should also be engaging in conversations there.
As I said earlier, you don’t necessarily need to do everything. Use your best judgment and participate in ways that make sense for your company.
I think this post is just a starting point. I would love to have your feedback on what you think about it. If people are interested, I might want to put more detail behind it and turn it into a longer article.