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Avoid Social Networking Pitfalls: 4 Tips

Social networking can be hazardous to your corporate health. Here are four potential hurdles and how to overcome them.
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Social networking has become a common element of sales and marketing inside most companies. Social media allows businesses to engage customers in market research, provide customer support, and gather information about both customers and prospects.

However, though there are definitely benefits to social networking, there are also four pitfalls. Here they are, along with how to easily overcome them.

1. An Unclear ROI

Social networking is far from cost free. It takes time to read and write blog entries and comments, set up contests, and participate in the social interaction of a user community. Unfortunately, the activity is often so dispersed among multiple individuals that it's difficult to figure out whether the activity is worth the effort in terms of new revenue.

Some companies deal with this problem by ignoring it. I remember having a conversation with Brian Dawson, CEO of the telecommunications firm Tel-Tron. "All of our department managers are responsible for blogging once a month [because] we're trying to give our company an online personality." However, when I asked Dawson about the ROI for this effort, he replied that he had no idea.

A better approach is to examine before-and-after changes in sales conversion rates and customer service expense. If your social networking effort is paying off, you should see your conversion rates go up (because of better leads, better customer engagements) and your customer service costs go down (because the community provides remedial support.)

2. Rogue Employees

In the past, many companies only allowed executives who had been media trained to talk to the press. Such training showed executives how to remain on message to reinforce the company's brand and use the press to further the company's strategic goals.

With social networking, though, any employee can post something that can damage your brand, as when a Chicago bartender recently put racist remarks on his Facebook page. Similarly, employees have been known to grouse about their employers online, thereby creating the impression among your customers that you treat your employees poorly.

To avoid such debacles, set explicit but flexible employee standards and appoint an administrator or ombudsman to monitor participation and (gently) work with and correct employees who violate them. Here's a great example from IBM.

3. Negative Customers

Once you open your social network to customer comments, it's only a matter of time before you get some negativity. For example, the high-tech manufacturer Asus recently created a competition in which six people reviewed new products on a public website so that readers could rate their posts. Unfortunately, the post that proved most popular was one that panned the product.

However, attempts to control content (like deleting negative comments) will simply cause the discussion to move elsewhere on the Web, where you'll have even less control. Worst case, you could find your customers participating on a social network run by your competitors, simply because they'll tolerate comments you're afraid to leave active.

When confronted with customer negativity, your best response is to answer complaints with facts, and criticisms with understanding. This allows you to address problems quickly, squelch rumors, and feed information to your customer base.

4. Hidden Agendas

Because the Internet enables (and even encourages) anonymity, it's almost inevitable that you'll end up with some of your competitors in your community. Given that they're probably hanging out in order to pick up some competitive intelligence, they may seek to guide discussions in directions that might reveal plans you would prefer to keep secret.

Employees and customers may have hidden agendas, too. An employee, for instance, might post anonymously, hoping to influence product development to favor a pet project. Or a customer might use multiple aliases to rally support for a feature that would only be useful for that individual customer.

The solution is to treat social networking as an input to market research rather than a replacement. Take everything you learn with a pound or two of salt, and vet any ideas that surface to ensure that they actually serve your company's longer-term goals.

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Last updated: Oct 19, 2012

GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist

Geoffrey James was recently named a "Top 40 Social Selling Marketing Master" by Forbes, and his blog has won awards from the Society of American Business Editors and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. His writing has appeared in publications as diverse as Wired, Brandweek, and Men's Health, and he is the author of numerous books, including The Tao of Programming, Business Wisdom of the Electronic Elite, and, most recently, Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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