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Five Social Media Engagement Principles (or Mantras)

I’ve been giving talks to social media rookies since 2009. The focus of these talks varies depending on the audience, and the details have evolved over time, but there are certain social media engagement principles that I highlight in almost every presentation. These principles are an extension of the ideas I shared in Social Media Engagement: 7 Rules for Working Smart, not Just Hard. Whereas that post focused on high level considerations connected with preparation and planning, this post is more tactical and action oriented. I like to think of these principles as mantras…

The social media engagement principles often repeat a set of core themes that can’t be emphasized enough, but each offers a unique twist on the theme. They can generally be applied to the activity of both individuals and organizations, though there may be a stronger focus on organizational engagement. Similarly, they can be applied to both external and internal applications of social technologies and should have value to both beginners and initiates who may be looking to regroup and improve their efforts.

These principles don’t necessarily apply to early adopters, however. The experiences of individuals and organizations who are on the leading edge of technology adoption are generally more dynamic and chaotic, and less efficient, than these rules may allow. Their processes are highly experimental and organic, and following restrictive rules could inhibit both their explorations and their discoveries.

In other words, these mantras are for settlers rather than trailblazers

I would love to hear the social media engagement principles that other people recommend and/or follow. And as always, I welcome questions and comments.

Proceed with “Mindful Flexibility”

The underlying philosophy necessary for success with social media is one that balances focused discipline with adaptability. Being mindful means that you “begin with the end in mind” (to quote Stephen Covey) and have a clear sense of what you’re hoping to accomplish in general terms. As I discussed in the earlier post, your goals and objectives will serve as a guiding force for your decisions and actions.

But rigidly hewing to a specific course of action is virtually impossible. Being flexible means you accept that you cannot perfectly pursue a “master plan.” You must recognize that the environment within which you’re operating is constantly changing, with new technologies, platforms, tools, and best practices emerging all the time (see my latest Social Media Sophistication Quiz post for more on that). You also need to develop a high degree of tolerance for ambiguity and chaos, and be willing and able to change course when circumstances dictate.

A corollary idea is to be patiently impatient. You want to move forward with a sense of urgency, but you also need to recognize that you may not see positive results immediately. Depending on your starting point (e.g., your skill level, your operating characteristics), it could take months or even years to reap significant and consistent returns on your investments. There are few overnight successes, and it’s probably naïve to expect any. But that doesn’t mean the investment isn’t worthwhile…

Listen First, then Talk

In my previous post I suggested that people shouldn’t underestimate the power and value of listening as a reason to be engaged with social media. Too often people focus on what they can/should say through social media rather than what it enables them to hear. Digital monitoring is incredibly powerful. Your initial investment may actually focus on listening rather than talking – in fact, it probably should.

I suggest finding, following and studying the digital activities of early adopters and experts in your profession and/or industry. You can and should also identify key customers and prospects and start listening to their chatter in the digital spaces where they hang out. And don’t forget to tune in to competitors and suppliers, as well as relevant professional associations and public sector entities.

Focus on both content and style when listening to the individuals and organizations you decide to follow. Don’t automatically assume their activity reflects best practices. There are countless enthusiasts and early adopters who continue to make rookie mistakes and/or follow norms that are no longer generally acceptable. Note what you like and don’t like about their activity and pick and choose what makes the most sense for you. Also make note of when they change their own modus operandi and/or shift courses, and look for clues as to what does/doesn’t work for them so you can learn from their experiences.

A corollary idea to transition into the next rule is listen broadly and speak narrowly. Your digital inputs should generally exceed your outputs in both quantity and diversity. Part of the reason social media gets a bad rap is that too many people are talking and not enough people are listening. Buck the trend by placing more emphasis on tuning in rather than tuning other people out. I know that information overload is a challenge for all of us, but there are tools and techniques to help you manage it. I’ll say more about that in a future post.

Be Strategically Tactical

When you are ready to become more actively engaged, you need to invoke another corollary to the first principle: think before you act. If you can’t provide a cogent explanation for why you want to pursue a specific tactic, then you probably shouldn’t pursue it. It’s true that the digital landscape is still a bit of a “wild west,” and there are no guarantees, but your risk taking should be calculated rather than blind. Before committing to a course of action, evaluate your options based on your goals and objectives, as well as the potential longer term consequences, both positive and negative.

Even the most rationally-determined courses of action can fail, of course, but the key is to fail smart, which means fast – and hopefully small! Success in the Digital Era is defined less by the ability to avoid failure than the ability to respond appropriately. Every new tactic you try should be viewed as an experiment. You should monitor the immediate consequences, evaluate them, derive lessons learned, and decide whether to stay the course, shift it, or abandon it altogether.

In addition to learning from your own experiences, you should monitor the activities of others and learn from their successes and failures as well. Cyberspace is full of cautionary tales and examples of what not to do. Don’t repeat someone else’s mistakes unwittingly.

Keeping your ear to the digital ground also means paying attention to the latest trends in social media and digital technology – but don’t be tempted to become a “fad follower.” Unless you’re a consistent early adopter, it’s generally not a good use of your time or resources. You don’t want to miss an excellent opportunity, of course, but there’s little risk in watching and waiting and joining the second or even third wave of users. The key is to make sure it makes sense for you and your organization.

Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of infrastructure and laying a solid foundation from the outset. In addition to thinking about specific platforms and tools, you want to think about how they should be integrated into some kind of social media or digital engagement system. Thinking of specific tactics as pieces of a puzzle and having an idea of how the pieces fit together will enable you to move forward with greater efficiency and effectiveness and will minimize the risks of having to undo and redo things down the road.

Balance Idealism and Pragmatism

It’s great to be enthusiastic and ambitious, but don’t let your ambitions exceed your ability to realize them. Recognize the very real constraints you face (e.g., limited time, money, and/or human capital resources) and plan your actions accordingly. Engaging in social media may not take a lot of cash, but it can take a great deal of time to do it right. It’s better to be conservative and go for small wins than to try to hit the ball out of the park and strike out.

It’s also wise to start with where you/your organization are, rather than where you’d like them to be. I often hear people talk about the cultural shifts necessary to create “social success,” but I don’t necessarily agree that organizations must become more egalitarian and open, with a highly engaged workforce, before they can leverage new social and digital tools. These tools can produce tremendous value in terms of efficiency and effectiveness in even the most top-down, command-and-control environment. And as adoption spreads, cultural shift may result. So don’t wait for ideal circumstances to think about moving forward – the process isn’t that linear. It’s better to identify the value to be derived based on current circumstances, build on the foundation that already exists with respect to processes, culture, resources, etc., and let things evolve organically from there.

Emphasize Quality over Quantity

Many aspects of this rule are reflected in the previous post and the rules above. Don’t feel compelled to be everywhere in cyberspace all at once. Choose the platforms that make the most sense given your goals and objectives, operating environment, and resource constraints. Start small and build incrementally. Avoid creating digital ghost towns and/or leaving a trail of digital detritus by committing to platforms/tools you can’t maintain. For more on these ideas, see this post.

You should always be conscious of your digital brand and your social media credibility. Cyber memories live on for a very long time, and everything you do contributes to (or detracts from) your reputation. Always act with integrity and professionalism. You can certainly share your personality, but I would caution against getting too personal. With few exceptions, it’s generally better to err on the side of conservatism and formality than to convey the wrong impression by being too loose and informal.

Finally, make sure the content you create, curate, and/or share is high quality and relevant. You want your contributions to be viewed as valuable signal rather than unwelcome noise, so that people will want to continue to tune into what you have to say rather than tune you out.

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