Social media may be the new big thing -- it's also a desert of despair for too many entrepreneurs.
For every big-city food cart vendor using Twitter to advertise lunch specials and bring in hungry workers, there's a befuddled entrepreneur dutifully Twittering or Facebooking away to no useful effect -- or worse, getting sucked into Farmville and forgetting to mind the store, warns Taylor Ellwood, author of "Understanding the Social in Social Media." He helps both B2B and B2C businesses to navigate the shoals of social media.
What are the key things a CEO must know in order to create a workable social media strategy?
First rule: there is no effective, one-size-fits-all social media strategy.
What works well for one business model, says Taylor, may fail utterly for another. Twitter has proven to be effective for a few businesses, such as food carts, who want to reach consumers in a time-sensitive way with information like food specials. Because Twitter lends itself to small-broadcast re-tweeting among friends, it's common for small groups to share a particular special among friends and give a boost to a cart's business that day.
For a space like St. Honore Bakery in Lake Oswego, with both food and bands (and other events), Twitter could serve, however Facebook has proven to be more effective.
Second rule: social media is social, not marketing -- so be responsive and polite. Learn the etiquette of each site, and follow it.
St. Honore had a Facebook page with relatively little activity, until Taylor coached them to follow the unstated rules of social media -- in the case of Facebook, it means you need to respond to posts. "You don't have to respond to everything, but you do have to respond," says Taylor. "Social media is not just a platform, and it's not a technology for advertising. Nobody likes advertising. People go on social media to socialize."
Another common use for Twitter is for protecting brand reputation.
Third rule: pick a few social media platforms that fit your customers, and some that help you personally.
"It can be exhausting to keep up with social media," Taylor points out. There are new platforms being launched regularly. You might blog, plus post status updates on Facebook and Twitter, and a few other things -- that all takes time. Pick the 1 to 3 platforms that are most useful in connecting with your customers, and invest a fixed amount of time -- say, 30 minutes a day -- in them.
And be willing to explore and learn, not just sell or market. "Where Twitter shines for B2B is the conversations, such as the #custserv 'chat' that happens each Tuesday." Those chats, organized by 'hashtag,' are great resources for improving how you do business. (A public directory of Twitter chats is here.)
Fourth rule: only create a social media strategy as part of a written plan, integrated with the rest of your business plan -- and be disciplined about executing on it. "Don't get lost playing Farmville on Facebook," warns Taylor. Truly manage your time and energy, and be consistent.
And, don't be afraid to ignore social media.
Do we all need to be engaged in social media outreach? No, says Taylor. Some B2B firms can find it a waste of time. If your business serves customers who don't use social media, or don't use it when making buying decisions, there may be no reason to bother.
However, customer behavior does change. If you sell rivets to Boeing, you may not get value today from social media -- however if the Boeing procurement people start basing their buying behavior on what they experience over social media, you'd better know it and respond, fast.
Fifth rule: slow down and be genuine.
A common mistake is to use the generic Linked In invitation. Neither Taylor nor I want to link with people we don't know and won't be creating a relationship with. When inviting someone to link, remind them of how you met, or tell them why you want to meet, and describe how you envision helping each other: "Fred, we met last week at Rotary. I wanted to link because I see ways we can help each other better serve our clients." Include in your invitation a suggestion to chat on the phone, and your phone number. By doing your homework, you're showing respect -- and making it much more likely the other person will want to link with you.
While there are plenty of tools that will let you write one status update and post it across a dozen social media platforms, Taylor advises against it. "For a couple weeks I posted the exact same thing on Facebook and Twitter. I got no responses. Then I posted on Facebook a variant of my Twitter post, only longer than 140 characters -- and I got a lot of responses. When I see a Twitter post cross-posted on Facebook, it tells me they are lazy, and interested just in talking, not in listening -- so I don't engage."
Even if you're going to say the same basic thing on two platforms, take the time to craft individual posts.
Ultimately, the one thing we will never automate is the focused attention of another human being. "And that's how it should be," says Taylor. "That's fundamental to business relationships -- trust."