Corporate Social Media Done Right: 5 Lessons Learned

Robert Mullins is a freelance technology writer in Silicon Valley. His writing can be found at his Robert Mullins blog.



To tweet or not to tweet? That is the business dilemma.

Some companies see value in embracing social media websites such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and the like as a new way to connect with their customers. Nothing says we care like a status update such as “Just keepin’ the customer satisfied!” But despite the push for businesses to exploit social media, some of them can screw it up if they don’t think it through.

Before I get to that, first off, there are those who are decidedly anti-social to social media. Some companies prohibit use of it by their employees because of security risks. Surveys asking “Which ‘Mad Men’ character are you?” could be a delivery device for maladies that could infect the computer network and steal valuable company information. For others, it’s just considered a time waster. When the boss reads your status update, “Gawd, will five o’clock EVER come?” she’ll give you more work to pass the time.

But even for those who embrace social media, including blogs, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it that has nothing to do with the risk of viruses on your network or dawdlers in your office. Social media experts speaking at a recent Inbound Marketing Summit in Boston detailed five ways to fail at social media. A catchphrase heard at the conference that sums social media up is clever: “It’s not rocket surgery.”

First, a company’s social media strategy should go beyond just pushing sales. An example that came up is from Citrix, a company that delivers virtualized software applications to desktop computers. Its blog discusses a broad array of issues related to telecommuting, so it’s not just an ad for Citrix virtualization. A health insurance company promoted a community bicycle sharing program to keep people healthy, not to convince people to buy a policy from them.

Another way social media strategies can go wrong is if there’s no there there. That is, if a company invites customers to comment and share their opinions on a particular subject and doesn’t respond to their suggestions, it’s an empty gesture. Southwest Airlines considered following other airlines in making assigned seating aboard its flights. By posting its proposal on its blog, Southwest heard from customers who liked the first-come-first-served approached and kept it, with some modifications, based on that feedback.

A social media strategy can also fail if the company doesn’t embrace what needs to be an adaptive technology. The company’s blog or Facebook page needs to be simple for anyone within the company to operate without having to submit a work order to IT.

That said, there needs to be some corporate discipline in how social media are used. Attendees at the conference warned of the “rogue employee [who] ‘goes off’ on Twitter” as something to watch out for. Social media conversations can be casual and free-wheeling, but message control is still important.

Lastly, a social media strategy can fail if the corporate culture doesn’t truly embrace it. The strategy needs to be customer-focused, which seems obvious, but in some cultures, process, policies and products can take precedence over using social media to serve the customer.

Oh, I guess this is the point where I should invite your comments, to which I’ll be eager to reply.