There is no shortage of means for engaging in the social media landscape, and engage we must, goes the current industry imperative. But best practices are in short supply. Here are some guiding thoughts as we pick our way through the social engagement  woods. 

We're Engaged! Our Intimate Relationship with the Web

The word “engagement” implies a connection between two parties. It's personal, it's distinctive -- it's everything the Web is becoming in the wake of the social computing boom. These days not being tuned into your audience is a communications and relationship disaster.

"...consumers that actively engage in the use of social media tend to feel more in control of relationships and more positive about their connection with organizations in general," explained Michael Hulme, Professor, Institute of Advanced Study, Lancaster University, in a recent article.

More importantly, organizations are slowly but surely discovering that forming and cultivating online relationships is the key to consumers' hearts. That is, establishing and continuously nursing these connections is crucial for business success.

"By providing an online community in which you can engage your audience in conversations with other like-minded people, you strengthen their bond with your brand," offered Anna Van Sligtenhorst, Telligent's director of product management.

Finding Your Audience

It's impossible to count the number of social engagement tools out there -- there are just too many. They serve difference purposes, perform different tasks, integrate in different ways, etc. And while options are great, having so many means you really need to dig deep into your needs before you start shopping.

Daniel Kraus of Leading Results gave a talk a couple of months ago at SugarCon 2010. He discussed the importance of differentiating between your target customer and your ideal customer. We all know what a target customer is -- it's the customer that you intend to reach with your business. Unfortunately, limiting yourself to just one group can be a disservice.

"An ideal customer is someone that is profitable, values what you do, refers you, etc," Kraus said. "Contact 8 to 10 of them and ask why they chose you. What did you do that they valued most? What is unique about your company? If you have defined your ideal customer, then you know where to engage them on the social Web."

In the same vein, Sitecore's Lars Birkholm Petersen recently pointed out that sometimes it's a good idea to start your engagement process by talking to yourself, not your customers. That is, before you start thinking about how you're going to engage your audience, know exactly what you want to get out your new relationships and what your organization's related policies and practices are. This will provide critical focus and structure for your limited resources.

Habits You Can Bank On

Once you've identified where your audiences are it's time to engage with them, which brings us to obstacle number two: finding a balance.

In the business world, one of the main challenges with combining social software and content management is maintaining a level of control that is appropriate for an enterprise and specific to business needs. To ensure that you don't fall victim to bad practices, keep the following in mind:

Strategies: Define Your Goals

"To be relevant need know what you are talking about, to understand your content," said Ian Truscott, a senior analyst at The Gilbane Group. "You need to have a point, an objective, what are you driving at?"

Blogs are great, but not everyone needs one. Social CRM platforms, podcasts, commenting systems and internal instant messaging systems are also great, but again, not everyone needs them. Once you define what exactly it is you want, what kind of monitoring and engagement your organization needs, then you can dig for tools that offer the appropriate support and accessibility for Web managers.

Perspectives: Think Both Externally and Internally

External social services is the expected topic. They allow an organization to interact with the wider public as well as potential customers. On the flip side, it's just as important to boost communication with your internal teams.

Internal socializing enhances traditional communication systems like e-mail, improving the way organizations collaborate and transfer knowledge between experts and new hires, for example. When approaching social engagement, work and think on both sides of the firewall. Lessons learned on one side very likely apply in some form on the other side.

Tools: Integration and Simplicity are Essential

The tools and processes you choose for managing your social media and user-generated content should, if possible, be the same as those used for managing internally-generated content. Keeping things tightly integrated provides familiarity and convenience, which in turn drives efficiencies for Web teams, as well as increasing the likelihood of consistent messaging and behavior.

Evolution: Experimentation is Important

Though it would be nice, there's no science to social engagement. In the end, what it comes down to is experimentation. While grabbing up social technologies haphazardly is a very, very bad idea, picking out solutions you think might work and trying them on -- one at a time -- isn't.

BT's intranet manager, Mark Morrell, shared some of his strategies for choosing the right technologies at the Connected Meetings Advanced Intranet & Portals event. These included:

  • Start small
  • Start cheap
  • Build for tear down

As we mentioned earlier this week, open source software often (not always) fits into this category. It's cheap -- if not free -- and running quick trials is no problem. If it doesn't work out, at least you don't have to worry about contracts or budget approvals. On the other hand, if your experiments go well you can build on the platform, or move on to tools that fit your needs even better.

Practices: Document Policies, Lessons Successes and Failures

As your internal team engages socially, cultivating relationships with your customers, it's important to make sure everyone is on the same page. Building up a knowledge base, capturing policies and lessons learned can quickly spread best practices throughout your company.

Good old fashioned organization and communication is just as important when working with fancy new communication styles and tools.

Bad Habits to Avoid

Interestingly, though these social technologies are at the forefront for a lot of us, experts such as Dion Hinchcliffe of ZDNet still believe it may be years before organizations are ready to adopt them.

"The reality is that broader social and cloud computing trends continue to evolve faster than most enterprises are able to absorb," he said.

Yogesh Gupta, President and CEO, FatWire, pointed his finger at our rose-colored glasses.

“The biggest mistake organizations can make is using these tools for the technology’s sake. For example, saying 'I think we should have blogs and user-generated video uploads on our site.’ isn't the right start for the planning process. It should instead be, ‘We need to drive greater customer loyalty while reducing our call center costs -- how can we use social tools to enable more productive, informative and cheaper interactions between our customers and the organization?’

In short: Yes, we need to find a way to let these new tools live in harmony with the business of business. No, that doesn't mean everyone will benefit from using the same solutions. Again, it's about determining goals and practices first, and then going out to find the tools that fit your needs.