As more and more SMBs dive headlong into the big social pool, I often imagine a lifeguard blowing the whistle while pointing firmly to the ‘No running on the deck’ sign. If you go too fast, you’re sure to slip and break something. There are big differences between swimming in clearly defined lanes in the relatively calm confines of the ‘traditional’ marketing pool, as opposed to navigating the undercurrents and sometimes stormy waters of the big social sea.

Wise organizations will learn to swim in the kiddie pool before diving in by following some basic steps to prevent drowning in social channels.

Don Burnside photo _no running_ permisison granted.jpg

Learn the basic rules of safety

Study the basic tenets of social etiquette. Have you ever noticed that it's really big news when someone swims the English Channel alone? There is a reason for that. Solo endeavors are risky. It’s not all about pulling yourself forward, but just as often about using the buddy system to help others along towards a mutual destination.

Carefully research the wave patterns in your industry

How are customers and competitors using social channels? Have you created policies to know how to respond in case of an emergency? Do you have a clear understanding of the lanes (channels) that are best for your business goals?

Before initiating a dive, check the landing zone for risks and rocky shoals. Become familiar with the landscape. Watch, listen and learn. Explore the depths and boundaries of your comfort zone.

Identify examples of those who are swimming in waters too shallow, and those who are in over their heads that can’t touch bottom. Learn the lingo. What are the most often used hashtags for your field? Can you recognize overlaps in social and traditional SEO? Have you defined goals for nurturing the conversation beyond pushing your brand?

Learn from qualified instructors

Some might choose the ‘learn as you go or perish’ method, but it is a better long term investment in skill-building to learn from qualified instructors. Don’t just look for a popular social media consultant, but instead search for voices that are invested in and fully understand your industry. They aren’t usually found in the stands as the loudest fans, but are found right in the pool, stirring up waves as challenging coaches.

Keep in mind that the very best teachers will always be your customers. They will also be your harshest critics. (This is where free-styling will lose you points with the most important judges.)

Take the time to determine up front what they expect of you. What communication style do they most appreciate? How can you best keep your relationship afloat? Ask them.

A sound training plan will include both lessons from masters, and repeated gut checks on progress with your customers. You’ve decided that you think social is a good idea. Now pause to query your customers about their vision for this ‘good idea’.

Learn to tread water

While it is tempting to head straight for the finish line and some imagined reward, there is a lot to be said for simply keeping your head above water. That doesn’t mean that you should be complacent. It does mean that your movements should be efficient and consistent; designed to keep you in a vertical position before striking off in a specific direction.

Don’t be tempted to exhaust yourself with a big splashy blitz. Most orgs that achieve success with social media do so after carefully crafting their strategy with multiple business goals in mind. After you’ve gained some forward momentum -- pause, rest and test. Then refine your approach and do another few laps. You’re in this for the long haul.

Ask yourself what you want to deliver for the extended duration? Then work in sprints for specific campaigns.

Practice your basic strokes

First, learn how to do a crawl. It’s true that there are always a rare few stars who have been gifted with innate talents that make it look easy to the audience. Although, as with most examples of excellence, the real key to success for the rest of us is often determined by our dedication to practice, practice and then some more practice.

Start by building on several core competencies. Can you improve your customer’s experience with social content? Does that include both sales and service? Can you improve your offerings by obtaining additional customer feedback via social channels? Have you created processes to incorporate social insights with internal communications?


If well done, social communications shouldn’t induce a lot of stress. It’s simply another method for communicating with your customers, partners and colleagues. Huffing and puffing isn’t necessary. A calm, measured approach is healthier.

Besides, it’s also fun to just relax and ride the waves some times.

If you hit a rip tide – don’t panic

Don't try to swim upstream. You'll spend too much energy for not enough results. Often, the best way out is to swim slowly sideways, on a diagonal with the current.

All organizations make mistakes. You’ll likely do a few spectacular belly flops along the way, too. The reality is that there are also both fair and unfair critics willing to broadcast their viewpoints to make waves in any channel, not just the social ones. When faced with a tsunami, pause long enough to ask a few questions before looking for an escape route. Is this issue one that causes real risk to the organization? If so, are the right resources aware of the issue to deal with it appropriately?

If this is a customer complaint, what do we know about the customer? What happened before they posted their critique? Is this customer more upset about the actual product or service you provided, or are they really upset about the experience they had in dealing with your organization? It’s surprising how often the root issue is more about respect, courtesy and communication over an actual failure to provide quality products.

Do basic research before striking out on a direction to correct your course. Sometimes the fastest response isn’t always the one that is best suited to your customer’s needs.

Swim first, then dive

Before you jump in the deep end, learn how to do the basics of social communications, and do them well.

  • Think synchronization -- with your business goals and your customers’ needs.
  • Think team -- Enlist help from skilled coaches and use the buddy system to provide the best training possible for all of your organization’s employees.
  • Plot your course -- You’re not trying to keep your brand afloat. You’re trying to service your customers, helping them to achieve their marathon goals.

Aren’t you?

Picture credit: Photographer – Don Burnside ( – Used with author permission

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in other articles by Kelly Craft such as: The Social Business Army: Do You Want a Buck Private or a Sniper