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Social Media Engagement: 7 Rules for Working Smart, not Just Hard

Summary:Written for both individuals and organizations, this post provides high-level guidance for rookies who are just getting started with social media, as well as those who are looking to add more structure, focus and discipline to existing initiatives. Maximizing social media engagement requires setting goals, assessing the operating environment, conducting a communications audit, developing a plan of action, acquiring knowledge and skills, incremental implementation, and managing time and information. (from the Denovati SMART Blog)

I am constantly reminded that in spite of all the media hype, the vast majority of professionals are still social media rookies. Many people are still grappling with basic questions like:

  • When, where and how to begin
  • How to learn and develop proficiency with different platforms and tools
  • How to establish a strong digital presence and create/manage a social media brand/image
  • How to manage (the often overwhelming) time and information flows

Others have implemented specific initiatives, but their approaches have been tactical rather than strategic and have produced mixed results. Both individuals and organizations have encountered challenges in terms of efficiency and effectiveness and have struggled to manage the necessary time commitments. Organizations face additional challenges because their fragmented, siloed efforts often result in stakeholder confusion and frustration, as well as frequent cannibalization of their own digital properties. In other words, they have a mess on their hands!

As much as people would love to find a silver bullet or killer app that will solve their social media challenges, one doesn’t exist. There is no “one best way” or simple formula for effective social media engagement. Like many other worthwhile activities, it comes down to dedication and hard work. But there is a set of best practices emerging, many of which reflect the same fundamental principles of success in other endeavors.

Here are my top seven “working smart” principles, which are applicable to both individuals and organizations. I also suggest taking a look at The SAPLING Approach to Leveraging Social Media, which offers a complementary set of recommendations.

Know Your Goals and Objectives
(in general, not just with respect to social media)

It’s such a basic consideration, but it is all too-often overlooked. Given how time challenged we all are, knowing what you want to accomplish is paramount to determining how you should focus your time and attention. All forms of media – including social media – are means to an end rather than ends in and of themselves. Before you can determine whether investing in social media is worthwhile, you must know why you might make that investment in the first place.

Remember to unpack your goals. It’s not enough to make no-duh statements like “I want to get a (new, better) job” or “We want more clients” or “We want to increase revenue.” For the goals to be effective, they have to be SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. Before you do anything else, either create some goals or revisit the ones you have to ensure they offer the kind of behavioral guidance you need.

Finally, in identifying your goals, remember that “less is more.” Your goals should serve as a beacon, a guiding light. More than three will probably confuse you. Having one that trumps all others will help you manage conflicting priorities and make tough decisions.

Know Your Operating Environment

Although social media platforms and tools are available to anyone who wants to use them, their value varies widely depending on a number of factors. Make the time to understand the digital landscape in which you’re operating, by researching the answers to questions like:

  • Industry. What sector are you in: commercial, nonprofit, public/government, health care, education? If commercial, is your focus business-to-consumer or business-to-business? If education, is it primary, secondary or higher education? And what kind of nonprofit – charitable, trade or professional association, issue oriented?
  • Peers. How far along the digital learning/adoption curve are other individuals and organizations you consider your peers (including competitors)? How widespread are digital engagement practices? What are the emerging trends and norms?
  • Stakeholders. Who are your target audience and key stakeholders? How digitally savvy are they? Do they use social media? If so, on what platforms do they hang out? How engaged are they?

Determine Whether Social Media can Help You Achieve Your Goals

Too often, social media is an answer in search of a question. Rushing into engagement, impulsively jumping on the bandwagon, or being a fad follower usually results in failure – or at least disappointment and frustration. Your efforts are wasted if they don’t enable you to pursue your goals and/or don’t make sense given your operating environment.

Keep the following in mind when determining whether social media makes high-level sense:

  • There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Just because someone else is doing something doesn’t mean you should. You must absolutely know “why” using a particular social media platform or tool is a good choice for you.
  • Don’t underestimate the power and value of listening as a reason to be engaged. 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, and that’s perfectly appropriate.
  • You may conclude from your assessment that the benefits to be gained from social media – either in general or on a specific platform – aren’t significant enough to justify the costs. Remember, though, that the ultimate question is not “if” but “when.” Plan to circle back to the assessment every few months to determine whether “not now” has become “it’s time.”
  • For organizations in particular, even when the answer is “not now,” it’s worthwhile to make the minimal investment to grab the digital real estate you may want to use in the future and hang a “coming soon” sign. In some cases, if someone has already staked a claim in territory you may want (e.g., a particular Twitter handle), you may be able to get it back. Claiming, preserving, and protecting your brand identity is as important in cyberspace as anywhere else.

Assess Social Media’s Specific Value and Plan a Course of Action

Once you’ve determined social media’s high-level value, you will want to do a more granular evaluation focused on specific platforms and tools. This assessment should also include a critical assessment of traditional media and current practices. Given limited resources, you may find that you should replace traditional approaches (e.g., snail mail, trade shows) with digital ones because they are more economical, effective – or both. At a minimum, you will want to integrate traditional and new approaches so you don’t unnecessarily duplicate efforts across multiple channels.

If you’ve already dabbled with social media but have your doubts about the effectiveness of your efforts, it might be worthwhile to conduct a communications and engagement audit. Though you can do this yourself, it’s probably better to hire an outsider who has digital expertise and can offer an objective and independent perspective. Regardless of who conducts the audit, it must be framed in terms of your goals and operating environment, and must make sense for your individual or organizational brand. In addition to critiquing current practices, the audit results should include a specific roadmap of possibilities and targeted efforts.

In addition to conducting an audit, organizations should also solicit input from their key stakeholders, both formally and informally, to ensure they understand the preferences, habits, and digital savvy of the people with whom they want to engage. Too many organizations have learned the hard way the risks of making decisions in a vacuum.

Acquire the Necessary Education and Training

When it comes to social media, most people “don’t know what they don’t know.” At the same time, many social media rookies are more digitally engaged than they think they are. I am reminded of both of these truths whenever I administer the Social Media Quotient (SMQ) Quiz during presentations and workshops.

Every rookie can benefit from educating themselves about social media and/or undertaking training that is appropriate for their role/position. Although many early adopters and social media devotees will advocate “learning by doing,” that approach is neither as efficient nor effective as being guided by someone who’s already climbed the necessary learning curves. It’s also fraught with unnecessary risks. Even if you already have well-developed knowledge or skills, you must remain committed to continuous learning to keep up with the constantly-changing digital landscape.

As with other aspects of your social media engagement, your efforts here should be guided by your goals and operating characteristics, as well as the plan of action you’ve devised. You need to learn smart in order to work smart.

Implement Incrementally

It’s incredibly easy to become overwhelmed by all the things you should be doing, and failures often result when people try to pursue a variety of initiatives simultaneously. An effective roadmap will lay out specific steps within specific windows (e.g., 1, 3, 6, 9 & 12 months), based on your defined priorities. If you stay focused and disciplined, you can transform your digital engagement from anemic to robust in a year or less.

In addition to implementing a plan of action, organizations should also address related issues like:

  • Governance
  • Social media policies and guidelines
  • Ownership of accounts, relationships and data
  • Commenting and community management guidelines
  • Crisis management

Develop a Workable Approach to Managing Time and Information

Discipline and focus are also critical to successful engagement. Don’t underestimate the ongoing time commitment you have to make to social media, and be sure that you are able to stay consistently engaged over the long term before you begin a specific initiative. Also remember that quality is much more important than quantity. Don’t feel pressured to engage constantly, and make sure your engagement is viewed as valuable signal rather than noise.

Specific considerations include:

  • What to share. Not everything has to be created from scratch. Most organizations are content rich and can easily identify existing content to repurpose and/or rechannel through social media. Even individuals can identify relevant and valuable content to (re)share. In an environment of information overload, there is an increasing need for high-quality content curation and unique thought leadership. Those are the best types of content contributions to focus on.
  • Who should engage. You may want to outsource or delegate specific activities and tasks, but your digital reputation is your responsibility and you want to be careful about to whom you entrust it. Also remember that authenticity is especially important in cyberspace. Hiring someone to handle your social media activity for you may seem efficient in the short term, but it can backfire over the long term if/when people realize they’re not actually hearing from or engaging with the person/organization they thought they were.
  • When to engage. Generally speaking, your social media engagement should be proactive rather than reactive. To avoid being drawn into a time-sucking black hole, and to ensure your digital presence is consistent rather than sporadic, develop an editorial calendar and posting schedule for sharing content. You should also set aside a specific amount of time each day or week to monitor activity and respond as necessary. Tools like the social aggregator HootSuite can help.

Your Thoughts?

I would love to hear the rules other people recommend and/or follow to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of social media engagement. And as always, I welcome questions and comments.

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