The rules of the game are changing, and they’re changing faster than ever before. You’ve seen the signs because they have been there for quite some time. Yet, if you’re like many organizations out there, you’re not sure how best to engage or even where to start.

You know you can’t afford to wait much longer and you’d like to develop a comprehensive strategy but that takes time, expertise and resources, all of which have become a scarcity in today’s harsh economic environment.

Are We Wasting Time?

With more than a billion users now online, every minute of every day millions of people participate in online conversations that take place across a multitude of social networking sites, blogs, discussion forums, wikis and topical communities. Included is the exchange of information and opinion around well thought out and researched articles, shorter more concisely written blog posts or 140 character tweets on services like Twitter, plus everything in between.

The collaborative architecture of today’s social technology has rapidly become a key enabler in providing users with the capability to publish any thought, idea, feeling or opinion on any topic at any time, for free. As a consequence of the inherent nature of these participatory social systems, average users have gained an increasingly higher level of leverage due to the ease with which their perspectives can be virally spread from person to person and community to community with little or no effort required on their part. As the number of users continue to grow, so too will their involvement, further compounding the already exponential growth of information being generated.

What if the messages dispersed are of detriment to your organization? How long will it take for you to hear about them and how will you react? Alternatively, what if they represent an opportunity? Will you be ready to take action by being first to respond?

The real challenge for any organization becomes how best to filter through it all and place it into a context that’s not only relevant but actionable. If done correctly, it has the potential to offer a gold mine full of insight into your industry derived from those that matter most, your customers.

The Importance of Restraint

As simple as it is to just jump into the social infrastructure and get started, the best approach is to use a little restraint. Starting with the technology and approaching social media with a mind-set of “let’s just get out there and be a face in the crowd” is sure to result in a disastrous outcome.

An earlier report by Gartner predicted that by the beginning of 2010 more than 60% of fortune 1000 companies will have had participated in some form of online community for the purpose of building customer relationships. At least half of these they said, were expected to fail due to an inability “to establish mutual purpose, ultimately eroding customer and company values” (see A Chronology of Brands that Got Punk’d by Social Media for a list of some examples where this has come to fruition). There’s a lot at stake with arguably the most important being reputation.

Consequently, as a first step, it’s crucial you take time to gather, document and gain a clear understanding of your goals and ultimately, what you’re trying to accomplish through social media. How will you know if what you’re doing is successful unless you first define what that success is going to look like?

There are typically many internal stakeholders with oftentimes conflicting perspectives and it’s important that you make every attempt to break down those organizational silos to get the right people, from the right groups, in the room to ensure everyone works from the same basic set of fundamental principles with respect to the organization’s overall goals, marketing objectives and key messaging. The wisdom of the crowds, as they say, need also apply internally as well. Successful strategy is a cross-disciplinary responsibility.

Editor's Note: Read more articles by Jeff Carr, including: Enterprise Search and Pursuit of the Google Experience

Listen, Engage, Measure and Enhance

Once you’ve got your cross representative team in place and overall objectives defined, market research will help to identify where your customers, associations, vendors, suppliers and competition are actively involved online. What communities are they in? Who are the key players? Who has influence and who doesn’t?

The purpose here is to ensure you are going to where the meaningful conversations are and not wasting valuable time and resources in places where they are not. Survey the landscape to determine where the best opportunities for entry exist and begin to outline approaches that commence the process of connecting with the people and groups that matter most.

Four key actionable areas to consider as part of your social media implementation include:

  • Listening - Observing and monitoring the voice of the industry as it is being expressed by participants in their everyday communications. The goal is to establish an understanding of overall sentiment by listening to what customers are saying. Also note what your competitors doing and try to determine if are there any opportunities to partner with vendors or suppliers that might already be engaged.
  • Engaging - Becoming an active participant in the conversation by connecting with customers through the appropriate channels. Look to contribute value based on insight captured throughout your monitoring activities. Try not to be too ambitious by tackling all avenues at once. Start small, establish a connection and then look to expand on your success. Keep in mind that it’s not a race; it’s about listening, learning and evolving.
  • Measuring - Establishing a metrics program that uses hard data captured through analytics and other feedback mechanisms to measure if what you are doing is moving you toward your goals. Perform an analysis on a recurrent basis and review and evaluate the results with the overall team to identify both positive and negative trends.
  • Enhancing - Keep in mind that it’s an evolution that requires an iterative approach. Leverage the results of your measurement to make incremental improvements to your methodology based on the things you learn as you go. Don’t be afraid to be creative, flexible and constantly adjusting in an effort to create contributions that offer value to the community as a whole.

Bear in mind that as you develop out your strategy, transparency must be a key component. Make certain that you clearly identify who you are, what you do and why you’re there. Social media, although centered on a person or organization, is truly about building relationships, the most important part of which use trust as the foundation. Unlike traditional marketing, it shouldn’t be viewed as a medium for pushing your message out to your audience but rather treated as a conversation or a two way street for sharing information, listening to concerns and developing mutual solutions to common problems.

Success Starts at the Top

Lastly but definitely not least, without the support of your Executive team you’re likely doomed for failure from the start. As the voice for your organization, it’s your responsibility to ensure senior level leadership clearly understands not only what the goals are, but how and why social media are the vehicle for attainment. Implementation and management are an iterative process requiring sustained care and attention and as such, you will need ongoing support in the way of budget, time and dedicated resources.

While your organization and the communities you represent are unique in your own way, addressing each of the areas outlined above as part of an overall strategy will be sure to get you moving in the right direction and on to building better quality relationships with those that matter most. Ultimately, your strategy will be to uncover issues, identify opportunity, produce market intelligence and develop deeper, longer-lasting relationships with industry stakeholders by understanding their voice as it is expressed by them in their own words. Your success depends on your ability to listen and add value.

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