Social Networking in the Enterprise: How to Make Friends and Influence Customers

Social Media Guru by scott_hampson, on FlickrTo say that social networking is the current trend on the web is like saying it gets colder in the winter. The top social media companies: Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are all fighting for position in the market with varying levels of success.  Other big names in technology are struggling to find their piece of the pie with products like Google+, Apple’s Ping, and Windows Live Messenger. Even relatively smaller application developers and service providers are following the trend and putting social media tools or integration hooks into their product offerings. But from an enterprise perspective, what does social networking mean for you? Here are some suggestions.

A Closed Loop Social Network Is Barely Better than Email

If you limit access to your social networking system or have a difficult or hard to find process you might as well be using listserv. By its very nature social networking is the ability for strangers to find one another in order to share some digital content. If you eliminate strangers from the process you eliminate the entire “social” angle. This is not to say that you cannot moderate your social network. You can still have multiple levels of access or degrees of exclusivity as long as these are clearly defined and consistently and fairly applied. So forget about creating a social network for just your customers. Not only will that be problematic to enforce but you eliminate the ability of your potential customers to see what your current customer’s are saying.

Likewise employee-only or partner-only social networks often fail not because of technology, but rather because of human nature. Social networks are very popular exactly because they are habit-forming. By limiting the field for communication down to a small set of people you decrease the overall amount of communication and lower the need to check the system daily, thus increase the likelihood that your users will stop using your system on a regular basis. Once it has been relegated to only occasional use it will quickly become perceived as a hurdle to communication rather than a facilitator regardless of the strengths of the system.

Get a Thick Skin Before Getting into Social Networking

There are some organizations in my mind at least, that probably shouldn’t be using social networking: Phillip Morris and the US Congress for example. Even the most beloved or most obscure companies however are going to eventually generate some negative feedback. In addition, the relative anonymity of social networking tends to increase the level of vitriol. The old adage is that people are far more likely to complain about failures than compliment successes. Going into social networking you should expect this, maybe not at first, but eventually it will happen. When it does:

  1. Remember that everything that happens on the Internet is forever. You can never truly take anything back. Before responding be sure to take time to calm down and read and re-read your response
  2. Never, ever, complain back. No matter how mistaken, deluded, or downright wrong a comment, do not blame the commentator. That never turns out well; it always comes across as petty and vindictive. Remember, as a corporation you are always perceived as the “big guy” and the public is always “the little guy”.
  3. Remain confident, but not smug or sarcastic. It can be a fine line to walk on occasion, but in general try to sound generally helpful and earnest.
  4. Don’t assume, rather ask for clarification, start a discussion, or enter into a dialog. This is often the quickest way to defuse an issue.

Should you get a generally inappropriate comment, simply ignore it. Some social networking tools might grant the ability to delete messages or remove specific users, but if those are not available don’t draw attention to these messages by commenting. Just let them fall down into the stream and vanish without notice.

Social Media Is Not Only for Marketing

There are tons of suggestions and information  from books to blogs to web sites regarding how to use social networking in terms of marketing and promotion and this is certainly one of its best uses. Marketing however, is not the only thing that can use social networking. Rightly, not every use makes sense for every organization, but there are many different possibilities, including:

  • Notifying your customers and partners of new information or service alerts
  • Getting and providing feedback on products and services
  • Providing support – social media even gives your social network the opportunity to support itself support to some degree
  • Share resources: links, files, contacts, etc.

Pick the Correct Social Media Service

Unless your organization makes its living providing social media services you really shouldn’t try to reinvent that particular wheel. Chances are: you will never produce a product as good as those already on the market; you will spend a great deal more time and money than necessary; very few people will every use your social media tools. One of the reasons that social media has become so hot lately is its ubiquitousness. There are social media tools on every smart phone, working within every browser, and with hooks built into most websites. Trying to replicate that breadth of coverage is a mistake for anyone without hundreds of millions of dollars to get started.

But, even after you’ve correctly decided to use existing social media tools, there is the question of which one. This will depend largely on your needs. Consider the following:

  • Does the service allow you to easily break users into groups and manage how those groups communicate?
  • What kinds of mobile tools are available and are they reliable and useful for your prospective users?
  • What types of integration capabilities are offered? For example, can you programatically start a conversation, create a new group, add someone to a group, or post a message?
  • What is the level of exclusivity or barrier to access that the service provides and does that match up with your needs?
  • Does the service use ads and, if so, how might the presentation and content of those ads affect or appeal to your users?

Don’t Forget to Use It

A thing unused is a useless thing. A social network account that is gathering dust can be worse than not having one at all. At best it gives the impression of unconcern with the needs of your connected users, at worst people can take it to mean you are out of business. Set your team a schedule for periodic updates, even if they have no new information (although this is hardly optimal). Make sure that more than one person is responsible for adding to the experience. Most importantly, make sure that those who are responsible for your social networking presence are actually capable of that responsibility. Never faun it off on an intern or some disconnected assistant. This person literally speaks for your company, replace the keyboard with a megaphone and highway billboard and you’ll have a better idea of who would make the best spokesperson.

When you are done adding social networking to your organization, go ahead and add me to your users 🙂

Follow me on Twitter or Add me to a Google+ Circle.

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