"The digital environment is not a parallel or purely virtual world, but is part of the daily experience of many people.”
Are those the words of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur? Not even close. Pope Benedict XVI said this in his annual message about the importance of human interaction and relationship-building on social networking platforms. The 85-year-old leader of the Roman Catholic Church now tweets in nine languages and has a YouTube channel. He is in good company with other spiritual leaders, including the Dalai Lama, who has more than six million Twitter followers, a Facebook page and a YouTube channel.
Business leaders are also visible on social networks; Bill Gates, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Virgin Group Founder Richard Branson, and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh all have a social media presence.
It’s not just well-known leaders and celebrities who are embracing social media. More and more organizations and companies are empowering employees to use social technologies to make their brand more visible, engage with customers and understand marketplace perceptions.
The social employee
Companies are now teaching staff how to engage with customers and prospects in the social space. As Ed Abrams, IBM mid-markets vice president, discusses in a recent blog post, IBM has been training employees to use social technology to build demand and gain insights from social networking conversations. “We have changed our marketing and communication team,” Abrams writes. “We had to learn how and where to most effectively leverage all this social media capability. For example, we had people who were direct mail specialists but now are specialists in how best to use Twitter. It’s the evolution of marketing.”
Service organizations including the American Red Cross have launched social media command centers to listen to conversations online so they can better understand what their customers need and evaluate the effectiveness of their services.
Interactions on social networking sites can help organizations big and small to:
- Reinforce and extend their visibility and what they offer.
- Uncover new opportunities, customers and talent.
- Monitor and track conversations to gain intelligence on how to better serve customers.
A five-step framework to get started
1. Define goals.
Before launching into a social media effort with your employees, first carefully define your goals and desired outcomes. Do you want to identify new business opportunities, locate talent with specialized skills, engage with more experts, expand the visibility of brand messages, or promote the expertise of employees?
2. Define risks.
Every company and organization operates within a regulatory environment and with its own unique culture and code of conduct. A recent study from the IBM Institute for Business Value—The Business of Social Business—states that “successful companies identify potential exposures, proactively involve the right experts and develop risk management plans. They think through their problems, understand regulatory drivers and their impact on the organization and ask questions about why a behavior is a risk and how to mitigate it.” The risks and exposures of communicating on social networks will serve as input to your social media policy.
3. Create a social media policy.
A social media policy establishes the online code of conduct for employees and defines the dos and don’ts of blogging and participating in social networks like Facebook, Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn. Some leading companies have published their policies online. These serve as excellent templates. See IBM Social Computing Guidelines, Walmart’s Social Media Guidelines, and Mayo Clinic Sharing Guidelines.
4. Build the plan.
Plans vary widely depending on the goal, but they all need to link to and support the overall organizational strategy. Functional leaders and experts need to be engaged in the plan development process. Depending on the goal, this may include marketing, human resources, public relations and customer service.
The plan also needs to take into account the current “digital footprint” and build upon the organization’s website and brand messages. The social media plan should clearly define the audience, goals, resources required and social networks best suited to achieve the goals. Blogs, media-sharing sites like YouTube and Pinterest, and social networking sites like Facebook, Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn may be part of the plan. Business goals and selected social platforms should define the training plan for each platform.
5. Train employees and launch.
Before conducting education and training on specific social media tools, employees need to be trained on secure online computing practices and the social media policy. Employee training should include how to write an appropriate professional profile/bio, which networks they should participate in and what topics are suitable for discussion. Training programs should also include specific guidance aligned with the business purpose of the social media plan. Training will be different for HR professionals using social media for recruiting versus marketing professionals deploying social media marketing campaigns. Social networking aptitudes vary widely, so mentoring programs are also an effective way to share skills within the organization.
Employees know your brand best
It makes sense to have all employees share knowledge and expertise—not just in the real world, but through human interactions in the virtual world. By participating in online conversations in a purposeful, thoughtful way, your organization will not only gain wider visibility but will be able to better understand customer needs and how to serve them.