By: Vanessa McGrady
Since the long-ago dawn of social media—around 2006—users have been posting about their families, their beliefs and their breakfasts. Back then, only about 5 percent of Americans were on social media. Today, a whopping 70 percent of us claim to use various platforms for news, entertainment and connecting with the world, according to the Pew Research Center. And anywhere that people are, businesses need to be, too.
It used to be that social media was optional for brands, with the occasional announcement of a sale post or a response to a customer comment or question. But the first intrepid businesses to adopt social media were incredibly smart, says social media consultant and author Kerry Rego.
“Those were the people—marketers, businesses— that were willing to gamble, that were willing to try something new. They were able to see a trend coming, and they were willing to go out on a limb. And that gave them a tremendous advantage over their competitors," Rego says. “So, 10 years ago, it still was a discussion on whether or not it was a good idea. That is no longer the discussion." Social media is necessary and powerful, she emphasizes, because it might be the only way the world receives a business' message as newspapers and other media dwindles.
Rego explains that social media is as much a science as an art. There are as many ways to get things wrong as there are to get them right—and when they get something really wrong, that mistake lives on in perpetuity even after a post is deleted and apologies have been made. The Chrysler employee who complained about Detroit drivers on the company's main Twitter account instead of his own, for example, is a classic case study about being fanatical in separating personal and business accounts.
Though the tools and the news cycle are constantly changing, the rules for participating in social media remain steadfast. Here are some tenets to remember:
Mind the Moment
There used to be some respectful silence after a national tragedy, but now the news cycle changes within seconds. Remain sensitive to what people need. So if people are consumed with a wildfire hypothetically called Big Red, absolutely do not use the #BigRed hashtag at that moment to direct people to your unrelated business. You'll only end up wasting time and space for people who are desperate for information about how to stay safe—and there is always a risk that the post will be seen as insensitive and you'll be "ratioed"—or receive an overwhelming number of negative responses compared to likes. “We are desensitized in some ways, absolutely, and it really has to do with the sheer amount, again, of emergency, pain, trauma, that's global," Rego says. Instead, wait for a more appropriate time and/or space to post your news.
“Understanding your mission statement, your values, and your vision are all extremely important, not only for your business strategy but also for your social media strategy. Those are the things that will anchor an organization in a storm," Rego says. The second part of that is understanding your customer and where they are. What's important to them? What are their sensitivities? How will you solve their problem?
“Once you know who the people are, then you can figure out the channels that you're going to be using, and that absolutely informs your approach," Rego says.
So don't jump on the latest cool platform just because all the teenagers are there—unless, that is, you are marketing to those specific people.
Make the Investment
Indeed, social media platforms are free or low-cost, but that doesn't mean they're simple or easy to use. “Expecting an 18- or 20-year-old intern from college to manage your entire brand is yet another disaster in the making," Rego says, “It is the most important tool we have to communicate with the outside world, and, if you're not putting budget toward it, if you're not training staff for it, if you're not making sure that they have sensitivity training, that they know how to use grammar and spelling, that they understand how to use technology, you are absolutely asking for a serious problem in your business."
Rego likens social media to any other tool for your business—whether it's laptops or forklifts or trucks. Workers and executives need training to do it well—and to know when to stay away. Not only can a rogue posting cause embarrassment but if it violates regulations such as financial disclosures, it can cost your company dearly.
Engage—Most of the Time
Your customers will reach out to you on social media—especially if they're frustrated with your traditional customer service channels. They'll also be vocal when things don't go their way. Meet them where they are.
“Providing good customer service, providing explanations, transparency, authenticity, and integrity is necessary in business, whether it's physical or digital," Rego says. “Now, if a business owner can't handle an opposing opinion, can't handle criticism, then they shouldn't be in business, and definitely shouldn't be online. It is absolutely necessary that we all learn how to deal with conflict."
However, you don't have to give airtime to trolls. “Trolling is a very specific behavior that's usually designed to upset or inflame a situation. I do recommend that every organization have a social media policy, a public comment policy, setting the expectations for what is appropriate behavior in your environment."
Without those statements, then people can argue, Well, what's acceptable behavior?
The other thing to remember is that, as long as humans are involved, there will be mistakes. Make sure you have a plan for when things go wrong. “It is amazing how many ways we can find to step in the muck," Rego says.
Act quickly. Talk to the team and make a decision about how you'll handle the mistake and what you'll say to stakeholders—regulatory agencies and your customers, especially.
“Make an apology appropriate to the situation, then talk about what's going to happen going forward. It depends on the level of the gaffe, sometimes it's silly and embarrassing, sometimes it's a violation of intellectual property or law and, again, depends really on the initial situation," Rego says. “But speed is necessary."
Vanessa McGrady is an award-winning journalist, social media strategist and communications professional. But wait, there’s more! She’s also been a playwright, actor, producer and voice-over artist. She can sing “Home on the Range” in Yiddish, which is apropos of nothing.
She is the author of Rock Needs River, a memoir.