The growing interest in social media belies an anxiety among businesses about how to use these new tools and how to put them to the best advantage. The signs of this anxiety are everywhere: the social media blog Mashable, which is one of the most visited blogs with 12 million page views a month, has a how-to section that frequently attracts responses in the thousands to each post.
"There's a huge amount of stress [in marketing departments about,] 'Are we missing the hot new thing?" says Andy Sernovitz, author of Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking. "That stress causes companies to panic about social media and not invest their time wisely."
So how can you build your company's social media presence in a landscape where, nearly every day, there's a shiny new site or tool competing for your attention? The rule for whether you should be dabbling in a social media space is pretty simple. "Most companies want to have a presence wherever their customers are," says Gina Bianchini, CEO of the Palo Alto, California-based social network Ning. "So if a company has customers congregating on certain social media platforms, it's a good idea for that company to know how and when to interact with their customers" on each platform.
Sernovitz says that companies should aim to be "fast followers" of a new technology, rather than pioneers, only dipping their toes in a particular social medium once it's clear they're being discussed in that space.
It can sometimes be tricky to know whether a company representative should engage in a conversation that's happening about a product or service. The conventional wisdom is that you should jump in, but some experts urge caution. It's like "not being invited to a party but showing up with a gift; it doesn't make it any better," says Mark Ghuneim, CEO of Trendrr, a company that allows its clients to track what people are saying about their brand across social and traditional media alike. Ghuneim believes companies should instead break important information into bits that are easy to digest and share. This will subtly encourage their brand advocates and loyal customers to promote the information autonomously.
Knowing how to handle social media with finesse is only half the battle for most companies. The other half: calculating the return on investment of spending time crafting and executing a social media strategy. Even though it is less expensive than other forms of marketing, social media's profitability for your company depends on what you expect from it. "Most companies put it in the wrong spreadsheet," says Sernovitz. You can't think of it as a marketing tool because "it's not a sales channel and it's not going to add up with a proper ROI."
The profits of social media are clearer and more pronounced if you treat it less as marketing and more as a customer service tool, Sernovitz continues. "What if we assume that an incoming customer service phone call costs you $25?" he asks. If a company can address a customer's question through a blog post or via a Twitter account, Sernovitz estimates that the company could reduce the volume of customer service inquiries that come later. A business that's aggressive in handling customer service through social media might expect to receive 100 fewer customer service phone calls over the course of a year. As a customer service tool, Sernovitz observes, social media suddenly becomes "incredibly effective and efficient."
Here are 3 tips to remember as you expand your reach through social media: