Pretty Simple: web, digital, social

In my organisation, staff are normally asked to write a short proposal before they can set up an official social media account. This works quite well – it means they have to think about all the pros and cons before they start, and also gives us a chance to squash any associated risks.

I’ve seen many such proposals, and have also read plenty of articles and blog posts on the reasons to “go social”. What’s become clear is that for all the great reasons to use social media, there’s just as many sloppy, ill-founded or just plain wrong ones. Here are some of the things to leave out if you’re trying to convince people about social media.

1. “It’s free!”

People are quick to point out that most of the popular social media sites are free to join. Yes, that’s a nice bonus, but if it’s one of the main selling points, you’re in danger. Free tools may not be free forever – what if Twitter suddenly started charging, just as you were starting to build up a healthy following? Sarah Lay recently blogged about this very quandary, and it stimulated some interesting discussions about the value we place on these tools.

Also, there’s the risk that free might mean expendable in the eyes of the decision makers. “Sure, we could run it for 6 months and if it fails, we’ve not lost anything”. You may not have lost any cash, but you’ll have wasted staff time and effort, and you may also have dented your brand.

2. “We can do it in our spare time!”

Social Media is quick – really quick. You can update Twitter or Facebook in the time is takes for some software packages to finish loading up. It’s ideal for the casual publisher, drip-feeding their thoughts and feelings. But if you’re doing this professionally, you’ll be wanting to be a bit more organised, and that means commitment. If you’re setting something up with only limited time to do it, it will probably fail. And even if you have loads of spare time this month (lucky you), who’s to say that won’t dry up next month? And when it does, you’re going to need to be able to prove that social media is worth more than a few scraps of spare time.

Don’t get off to a bad start by marginalising the commitment required – embrace it and make it part of a sustainable business case.

3. “Everyone is on Facebook!”

It’s sometimes tempting to think this, especially when talking about young people, but it’s actually far from true. Yes, the user stats are impressive: Facebook claim more than 800 million active users with more than 50% of them logging on in any given day. But global stats are useless if you have a more specific audience in mind. Do you know how many of your target demographic are using Facebook?

A recent meeting with local young people confirmed that most of them did indeed have Facebook accounts. However, some reported annoyance at being constantly bombarded with pointless updates, and said they were using it less as a result. One revealed that they now only check their account about 3 times a year.

Of course, any good PR expert will tell you that a multi-channel approach is vital. Offline, you don’t just do TV adverts – you also do radio, posters, billboards, press and so on. Equally, you don’t just do Facebook (or any other one thing) on the web. And you also need to be ready to move with your audience.

4. “We can take control of the conversation!”

A great argument for engaging with social media is to be part of the conversations that are already happening. But be wary of thinking that means you can take control of the conversation, or even have any impact on it at all.

Social media can be great for myth-busting. Recently, rumours were spread that my department was going to cut a popular service. A Facebook protest group popped up within hours, with hundreds of followers. The rumours were completely unfounded – in fact, the service was expanding. We took the unusual step of posting to the Facebook group officially, refuting the rumours and linking to a press release with the real facts. A great example of engaging with the public and getting accurate messages out.

However, social media (and the web in general) is useless for covering stuff up. This is, of course, a wonderful thing – whether you love or hate Wikileaks, it has certainly shown the power of the Internet in sharing information and challenging our dated notions of confidentiality and secrecy.

So, if you’re hoping to control the conversations – to use social media to get some messages out, whilst keeping quiet on others – you’re likely to be found out pretty quickly.

5. “We need to learn how to use these tools!”

I’m a great fan of learning by doing, and indeed this is essential with social media tools. You can’t possibly ‘get’ Twitter until you’ve used it. However, I’m not a fan of using the general public as guinea pigs for one’s own development. There are endless ways that a motivated person can go and learn to use social media platforms without necessarily launching into something official. Create a Facebook fan page for your favourite band; set up a Twitter account for your pet rabbit; take some footage of your local neighbourhood and start a YouTube channel. All of these things will be harmless and, hopefully, enjoyable – whilst also helping you to learn about how the different environments work.

By launching into something official without really understanding how the platforms work, or how the netiquette of these online communities differs from one to another, you risk appearing amateurish and making mistakes that could come back to bite you.

I hope to blog some good examples of social media proposals soon, so look out for that. In the meantime, if you’re thinking of setting up a new social media account, just make sure that you’re doing it for the right reasons.

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