The amount of activity and participation of people on sites like MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia, Digg, Del.icio.us and other so called social media sites and social networks that make up what we call the new Web or Web 2.0, did not go unnoticed by the big business out there.
The possibilities to do something good with it for your business are real, but hard to gauge, measure, adjust and redirect like how must things in the real world and the good old Web 1.0.
An untamed wild beast is powerful yet dangerous at the same time. Some beast can by nature not be tamed entirely, regardless of what you do or try to do in order to keep it under control.
There will always some amount of uncertainty and risk involved when being around or doing something with those animals. The same is true for social networks and “people” in general. However, the risks can be reduced by knowing more about the beast, learning how to handle it, being aware of the possible reactions (positive or negative) and having plans ready for as much as possible scenarios in the event that they are needed fast.
Social media can be leveraged by any company, especially large corporations. The problem is that large corporations are often scared of this new type of way of how communication is conducted and people interact with the company and its products and services. Yes, it is different than it was in the past and it requires some rethinking and learning, but it will be worthwhile doing, if you do it right.
Rushing the thing to jump onto the bandwagon as quickly as possible is not only dangerous, but also an open invitation for disaster and the chance that things get even worse after the first “incident”, which will come for sure. That is not a question of IF but WHEN. The traditional “ignore”, “bully”, or “use the PR-Agency” methods can have an unexpected backlash and hit you without you being ready for it.
Why go through all the trouble and even think about implementing a social network and for what?
Social media can be used internally, as an extension of an extra-net, which involves suppliers and business partners and/or externally to communicate with existing and/or potential future customers.
Wikis and other collaborative editing/content management systems, rating and ranking features, comments and discussion forums can be used for anything that is some sort of data repository, database or collection of information. It can also be used for phone and contact lists and events calendars as well.
If you let your customers engage you and your products directly, things like focus groups and similar vehicles for market research and testing could be replaced entirely and become more efficient than the best “focus group” will ever be. You allow direct input from people who actually know and use your products or your competitors. People who know what they need and can tell you exactly what that is etc.
Projects that involve you and multiple of your suppliers could be coordinated in a way that each supplier can interact with the other and discuss possible issues, specifications and time lines without the need for you to do anything at all. Issues that arose from three way communication, no communication or clarification of provided specifications can cause problems that result in delays and problems during the project implementation. Errors and misunderstanding could be avoided, if open communication between the involved parties would have been available during the whole course of the project.
Those are only a few examples, but you get the general idea I hope.
You want to make the most of your social media implementation and ensure that it does not become just another unused tool, which was rejected by the users or simply ends up a mere replication of existing data repositories without adding additional values.
You should consider the following things for your social media implementation.
Make it Easy
Make it easy for the user to express their opinions and ideas in the social media environment. Implement the right tools and make sure that those tools can be used right away without the user having to go through extensive training classes in order to use the system. More is not always better. As a compromise, make the common features enabled and active by default and put all the other stuff under optional “advanced” setting for the geeks and super users who cry for more fancy features.
The barrier of entry that makes users participate or not, depends significantly on the fact how hard it is for a user to take the first steps that are necessary in order for him to see a result, gets a feeling of accomplishment and if and when he sees gratification in return to his efforts.
Be as Open as Possible
In many cases are better results accomplished if more people are involved rather than a handful selected few. The enlightening moment is often triggered by a seemingly outsider who provides new views and thoughts to a discussion that is trapped in a vicious circle without being able to escape it.
Let as many people participate as you can. Use a black list approach rather than a white list one and restrict access only where it is absolutely necessary for security reasons or where you have to protect your intellectual property from competitors.
Encourage, not Discourage
Let people do what they do, even if they spin off a little and discuss more than a specific problem at hand. You might want to moderate here and there and move discussions that are in the wrong section to another place where it is more appropriate and let the discussion continue there. Do the same if discussions spin off too far and get off track as a result of it.
Police, yes, but …
Sometimes people go over board and add content that is not appropriate. “Not liking” or “different opinion” is not what I mean by inappropriate. I am referring to the use of aggressive or obscene language, threatening other users, publishing of company secrets in places where unauthorized users have also access to it etc.
Most of the reasons why you have to police something should already be written down in some sort of user guide that explains the network rules and code of conduct.
If you take actions against a violator, especially actions that are visible by other users, provide clear reasons for your actions that the users can understand, follow and agree with you on. Do not act like a secret police that acts arbitrary under a cloud of unclear rules and without the need to justify its actions. Doing so will get you many things, but not trust by the users.
I mean by keeping control more that you know what is going on in order to be able to act where necessary or appropriate. Don’t do more than you can handle. If you go too broad and have more users contribute to a vast number of things without you being able to keep an eye on what is happening, you open yourself up for problems.
Create only as much as you can handle, even if that means that you have to make your social media implementation a phased approach in order to be able to grow the necessary tools and staff to moderate with it.
Now I will talk about the most important key element that businesses, especially the large brands that are in most cases overly protective about their brand image, should keep in mind, if they want to go the route of social media. Not every company is ready for it, actually most are not.
In order to have a successful social media site that has value for you and for its users, you have to make sure that people trust you and feel safe from expected and unexpected repercussions and consequences if they are expressing their thoughts and opinions freely. I mentioned this already, but I will repeat it again, a bit differently to make sure that it is understood correctly.
I am not referring to obscene, vulgar or plain and simple unethical, immoral or even illegal stuff, but to straight forward and sometimes blunt truth and honesty, which is either in opposition to your own views or at first glance negative for your precious brand image.
Complaints, Negative and Opposed Opinions
With a few exceptions are those negative or opposed views and opinions not malicious with the intention to just damage your reputation and brand. They often show a different perspective you have not been aware about before or a spelled out problem without any attempt to talk it nice and less of an issue than it actually is. In those instances is the intention of the person who expresses himself that way almost in every case very honorable.
The person intents to change something that is not right, at least in the way how he experienced it, and get it fixed or seek alternative options and suggestions. It is sometimes to remedy a current issue that is still open and unresolved and in other cases something from the past, where the person wants to help to prevent that other people have to make the same (negative) experience he made.
Those expressions will occur and the one thing you don’t want to do with them is to suppress them, delete them or prohibit or use any other means to discourage those kinds of expressions. You would lose trust and respect from people who notice it, from clients, staff members and outsiders alike.
If the negative opinion has some real basis and is real and no joke, censorship will not make it go away or solve it. People are most likely to take their grudge and take it elsewhere to a place where you have most of the time no control at all over the events that might follow as a consequence. The person who took the time to express his issues and concerns at your site and finds out that you try solve the issue by avoiding it and suppressing any conversation will only get elevated in his negative thinking about you and get madder than he already is because of the issue itself. That does in almost any case because the next rant by the same guy at another place to be much more negative and damaging than the original expression on your site.
Everybody can Forgive Honest Mistakes
Everybody can forgive honest mistakes, because we all make them. Nobody is perfect, including the seemingly perfect brands that less people actually perceive that way, considering it to be fake, unreal and detached from real life.
People do not forgive Censorship
People however are less forgiving when it comes to how somebody responses to sound and real criticisms. It demonstrates to any other customer and potential future customers how you handle problems, conflicts and concerns of your customers. They will see what they might have to expect in the case that they run into similar or completely different issues themselves.
Even the happiest customers of your might get worried if they see you handling such conflicts and problems badly, without making reasonable attempts to clarify the issues, seek the cause and provide either possible solutions to the problem or an explanation why that problem occurred and why you might not be able to provide a solution that will be satisfactory to the grunted customer.
Turn Negative into Positive
This feedback is the most honest that you can get and no focus group will ever discover. It also lets you turn negative publicity into something positive for you and valuable for your clients or potential clients.
The quality of your product or service will benefit from it, if you implement changes to improve it based on customer response and feedback, if the product or service will not get better, then the specification of what your product is good for and what it is NOT so good for will be better defined and most importantly will customers of yours feel much better about doing business with you, as they can see that you will not abandon them in the event of a problem that might come up down the road in the future. … and since you allow all this to happen on your grounds, it will be less likely to spread around as much, giving you the ability to “suck it all in” to just have to manage one larger fire that to combat many small fires all over the place and you can make sure that the problem does not escalate or sidetracks to make any solution finding impossible.
You can ensure that the discussion remains fair and civilized and not turns into pointless flame wars.
Come Out Stronger
In short, your brand and business will get out of this much stronger, more confident with a much better perception of you by the community, which will then result into a very good reputation, trust and more business for your company. And that is at the end of the day what it is all about, isn’t it?!
Not Limited to Customers Only
What I just said is not only limited to social media platforms that deal with outsiders, such as your customers, but also for purely internal Wikis. If employees who express concerns or problems get discouraged, belittled, branded as “trouble makers” or worse, fear for their job, they and everybody else will simply stop raising those concerns and problems and only talk about all that is good and peachy.
This will cause problems to get worse and worse over time until they burst into the open and hard to impossible to deal with. By the time everybody can see the problem, the possible solutions are most of the time very radical and sometimes negative as well.
Many of those problems became a big problem over time and started out as a small and very manageable problem that could have been easily fixed a long time ago, if only somebody who saw it back at that early stage already would have voiced his concerns and pointed to the problem. That would at least have given the company the opportunity to fix it right then or at least keep an eye on it to act a bit later, but before it escalates into an unmanageable monster.
I hope that you find the provided tips and recommendations useful. If you were not thinking about possible ways for how to leverage social media for your business, this article might provide you with some ideas to reconsider this option. If you are working for a large brand, I hope that you got out of this that there is nothing to fear except for the fear of doing it itself and that doing it is worth the risks, if you are aware of them and prepared for the things that are awaiting you.
Carsten is an internet marketing strategy consultant, entrepreneur, affiliate marketer, blogger and editor of the internet marketing resources portal at Cumbrowski.com, which provides tons of useful and mostly free resources for marketers to various aspects and channels in internet marketing.
P.s. I am sorry that it has been a while since my last post here at Search Engine Journal, but I hope that this especially long and detailed post compensates for the lack of posts during the past weeks hehe.