Over the past couple of years, I have been an enthusiastic follower of social media communications in organizations. As the wave of individuals have turned to popular applications and technologies to connect individuals and groups, businesses are finding the need to create new roles of tweeters, bloggers, posters and feeders, usually in an attempt to merely follow the competition. But which of the competition really knows what they are doing?
Social Media as a “Me-too” Strategy
I’m a lover of strategy, and as I search for social media strategies others are using, I see it following the likes of social media adoption: an all too often knee-jerk reaction to a developing eco-sphere of burgeoning online social activity, rather than a well-developed appendix to a communications strategy. Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s great to develop a social media strategy, but there is a danger here in the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ it is formed: Any strategy for the sake of strategy, often becomes disparate from organizational purpose and sub-optimizes the whole. Social media, and any strategy for that matter, simply needs to align with the larger purpose and vision of the organization / individual. And, social media, having its own strategy, may be putting the cart before the horse.
A Purpose-driven Approach to Social Media Strategy
Most organizations need to back-up and first begin with the following:
1.) The Relationships you’re building with Stakeholders. What are those relationships now and what do they need to become? Since really all social activities (and all organizations are social structures) begin and end with relationships, its critical to take stock in and inventory relationship gaps within and without the organization. Most companies that I have been in (a fair amount) don’t even formally acknowledge who their key stakeholders are in the first place. Take the leadership team through the process of working out and articulating these relationships, identifying their current state and their desired state. Now you have something to work with.
2.) What is the Best Way to Build those relationships? This question gives everyone a guideline and handrail to hold to and keep us directed as we work through the rest of the social media strategy process. Is it through insincerity? Is it by being guarded and defensive? Is it through telling too much or too little? Once you’ve identified the key relationships, simply have a discussion as a team about the best way to strengthen them. Use experience from your own life about how your relationship was strengthened with organizations you patronize. Not every relationship needs to be at the same level, but discussing what principles impact the development of those relationships will put everyone on the same philosophical page about relationship building.
3.) What Information, Exchanges, Experiences and Conversations need to take place in order for those relationships to foster? This is where you begin to design the messages or content from a high level. Don’t wait for the moment to come later to have this discussion – get it out there on paper right now. Let everyone look at it. This will begin to tell you about your side of the relationship and how you can step up to the plate as individuals and as an organization.
4.) How are we going to communicate with them to Best Facilitate it all? As you can tell, we haven’t even talked about social media at this point. This last question leaves us with the need to get clear on our communications strategy and planning ; social media, now that’s merely a channel for socializing your messages, a means for enabling your communications plan to be to actually communicate, from sending messages to receiving feedback.
Once you have a communications strategy, articulated and aligned, then you have the groundwork for clearly seeing the opportunities that social media can play in communication with your various stakeholder groups.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, what about the cool stuff – the facebook, twitter, digg, YouTube?”
Again, don’t get caught up in the channels (or ‘means’) that the relationships (or ‘ends’) utilize. Plan those channels just as you would any other. There is no quicker way to kill your brand than to whip out a social media strategy, open all channels of online social networking, and then find you’ve created a monster. Communications in web-based, open social circles can be like a prairie fire: a small spark can quickly rage uncontrolled, traveling faster than you can mobilize resources to contain it. You put a message out there with one intent, and it can be quickly picked up and perceived as another, blown across a vast area, too fast for you to control it. That said, don’t be afraid – be bold, be willing to be transparent and foster visionary leadership.