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5 steps to get started in social media

The Coca-Cola Company sponsors this blog and the Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council, which serves as an authentic and comprehensive “voice of the customer.” Visit ccrrc.org to learn more about the Council and to download its studies at no charge.

For companies looking to make a splash in social media, the road to success often feels more like a pothole-covered highway peppered with twists and turns and lacking any road signs.  But experts say while the sheer scope and power of networking sites like Facebook and Twitter may seem intimidating to the uninitiated, building a workable foundation in social media doesn’t have to feel like a leap into the unknown. You just have to stay focused on the big picture.

According to Michael Sansolo, research director at the Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council (CCRRC) of North America, rather than getting hung up on the technological complexities of the medium, companies looking to broaden their social media horizons simply need to apply the same community outreach principles they always have, just with a much bigger community in mind.

Sansolo and the CCRRC recently concluded a multi-year project to design a roadmap for itinerant travelers braving the social media highway. The six-part report is packed full of statistics, pointers and case studies; however the takeaways include a few simple steps that can make any business a social media success.

Know thyself

Before you can articulate your company’s vision to a mass audience you need a clear understanding of just what it is you’re trying to say. This may seem like a no brainer, but Sansolo says networked consumers are a highly astute bunch, and getting your message right can make or break a social media campaign.

Start by identifying your “social role.” Create a list of positive adjectives that describe your company – they could be as simple as value, helpful, or quality – then use these attributes to your company’s personality profile.

“Think of yourself on a dating site,” says Sansolo. “What it is that makes you special? Why would someone be interested in you? Consider your company’s strengths, and always frame them in the values of authenticity and transparency.  Don’t paint yourself as something you are not or people will see right through it.”

In other words, if you are a casual restaurant, don’t present yourself as a fine-dining establishment.  Instead, play off the attributes that make you special, say: “quality food at a good price in a family-friendly atmosphere.”

Know thy audience

Once you’ve figured out exactly who you are, you need to understand who it is you’ll be talking to. Many large retailers already have a sense of what their demographic is, but truly understanding your audience requires a much more personal connection. Start by observing your existing social media connections and those of your competitors. Use simple observation and the free metrics available from most social networking platforms to get a sense of the characteristics of the people who are following you. These findings can be translated into valuable intelligence for later engagement.

“Your objective is to build an online community,” Sansolo explains.  “Consider who are the people you want to interact with, what are they talking about and with whom are they talking? Only then can you start participating.”

For example, if your followers are chatting about healthy eating or allergies, think about creating a space for people to share recipes.

“You must provide relevant messages that you are bringing to people,” says Sansolo, “and you do that by understanding who they are and what is important to them.”

Set up your social world

While Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter remain the “Big Three” social networking platforms for businesses, that doesn’t mean they are all right for your company. Each platform offers unique benefits and limitations, and by the time you complete steps one and two, you should have a good sense about which will be the most useful for you.

Ask yourself: Where is your audience most active? While most retailers have loyalty programs that make it easy to engage in this kind of inquiry, much of this step will involve face-to-face interaction. Talk to your customers and associates and find out what they are using. Pick a primary platform and use your secondary platforms to drive users to your primary one.

When considering what social networking site will be your primary platform, you should ask three questions:

  • Is this where my current and prospective connections connect or could connect online?
  • Does this platform offer value that other tools and media do not?
  • Will this platform significantly help me fulfill my social role and reach my social vision?

Engage your audience

According to Sansolo, the process of engaging an audience is where social media most differs from traditional advertising.

“Advertising is a one-way endeavor,” he says. “When you advertise, you are transmitting a message, it’s me talking you listening. The social web puts the premium on listening. You begin by listening.”

This means not only listening to positive feedback from your audience, but dealing with inevitable negative feedback as well.  The good news is that once you’ve built your community, inauthentic or unreasonable complaints will be seen for what they are.

“What we have learned is that because of the authenticity of the social web, if someone criticizes the retailer in an unfair way the fans will respond,” says Sansolo, adding that even the most severe customer issues can most often be rectified by through direct engagement.

However, before engaging your customers, be sure you’ve established a company-wide protocol for how interaction will take place and who will be involved.  Having a comprehensive set of “Rules of Engagement” in place will ensure you are speaking with a consistent voice that falls within the parameters of your social role.

Assess and evolve

Creating a social networking presence is not a one-time endeavor, it’s an ongoing process. The world of social media and the consumers who populate it are constantly evolving, and so should you. To stay closely tuned to what is being said about your brand and by whom, consider the many free analytics tools available – like Hoot Suite and Klout – that allow companies to assess their social media reputation.

Sansolo says that success should be weighed by two variables: “Return on Influence” and “Return on Education.” Is your company’s brand seen as a positive force in the social media world? Are you correctly educating consumers about your company’s social role?  When you put out a message are people sharing it?

If the answer to those questions is yes, tangible results won’t be far behind.