Facebook, Blogs and Twitter: Social Media Wins the Race

Last year marked a turning point in the history of social media tools. While their growth until then had been nothing short of spectacular, they were still being treated like the precocious youngest child of a large family: smart, cute and fun to have around — but still too immature to be taken seriously.

Then along came a guy named Barack Obama, and suddenly everyone wanted to be in on the game. He leveraged social technologies to raise more money than any presidential candidate in history — close to $1 billion by most estimates — and used text messages, networks, wikis and blogs to connect with legions of far-flung volunteers and supporters.

This unprecedented interactive capability allowed Obama’s campaign to deploy resources where they did the most good. And while John McCain struggled to master his inbox, the president-to-be was convincing voters they didn’t want to be led by someone so far behind the technological curve.

Thanks to President Obama, social media finally is being taken seriously. Now, companies everywhere are asking themselves if they should be getting social, too. Whatever sector you’re in, should you be green-lighting blogging, podcasting and Facebook applications?

My advice: definitely. But only if you’re willing to do it right.

Recent data from Forrester Research points to a serious uptick in social technology adoption. For example, while 56 percent of American adults used social tools to connect with each other in 2007, that figure ballooned to 75 percent in 2008. Twitter, meanwhile, grew a stunning 752 percent from 2007 to 2008 and turned its 500,000 unique monthly visitors in January 2008 into more than 4.4 million by December. Further, the service overcame serious midyear scalability issues to become a favored platform for breaking news.

It’s clear that if businesses want to connect with customers, they need to follow them online. But the solution is far more involved than simply registering with Facebook or starting a corporate blog. In fact, these half-hearted efforts to engage increasingly tech-savvy customers and stakeholders often can do more harm than good. Nothing is more pathetic than a technophobe executive expressing his hipness because he just became a blogger. It’s why the corporate failure rate for social media initiatives is so high.

Want proof? Pick any company and navigate to its blog. How many comments does the average entry have? Has the CEO even posted something new since Thanksgiving?

As you mull over when and how to dive into the social media waters, keep the following best practices in mind:

1. Define your goals. Establish specific, realistic metrics around what you hope your social media strategy will accomplish.

2. Build a broad base of support. Commitment to social media must come from all levels of the organization, including C-level executives. If anyone’s paying lip service to building the proper cultural environment, it’ll be over before it gets started.

3. Don’t fake it. Corporate blogs and wikis can’t simply be used as one-way executive journals or thinly veiled PR/marketing speak. If you’re not building a dialogue-friendly culture that’s open to comments, interactive with all participants and willing to change on the fly, you’re not building anything at all.

4. Assign someone. Policy is useless without someone driving it. Even if the projected activities aren’t enough to justify a full-time resource, build a part-time job description for the role and work with HR to find the ideal media-aware individual.

In the old days, communication ran one way and organizations could afford to stick to traditional media and processes to keep in touch with stakeholders. The election of the first social media-aware leader of the free world means the rules have changed forever.

Organizational communication now moves in all directions, not all of which are under your direct control. Even if you don’t know what Twitter is, your stakeholders do, and they’re already using it to swap notes on your performance — and determine your future. 

Carmi Levy is a technology journalist and analyst with experience launching help desks and managing projects for major financial services institutions. He offers consulting advice on enterprise infrastructure, mobility and emerging social media. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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