A follow-up to my last post about where we’re heading with mobile in 2012, effectively leveraging social media marketing is another topic that I’ll be very focused on this coming year.

Again, nothing new here – social media is big news all around, but best practices for leveraging social media for marketing purposes are still in flux. With Google+ and Twitter recently deploying more business-friendly capabilities, many more opportunities for organizations to engage with customers, business partners and potential employees through social media channels now exist. But the key to effectively leveraging social media is, first and foremost, to have a strategy. Too many organizations jump into social media because everyone else is doing it without really thinking through the implications. You need a marketing strategy for social media just like for any other marketing campaign, even more so since with social media you don’t have full control of the message.

An example of what can go wrong – a couple of months ago a colleague pointed me to the Facebook “fan page” of a major appliance manufacturer. That’s fan page in quotes because the vast majority of posts I found on this page were certainly not from fans, but rather from angry customers complaining about issues they have experienced with this manufacturer’s products and/or customer service. Probably not the results this company banked on when they launched the Facebook page. Worse yet, there were only a few instances of the company’s representatives trying to respond to these complaints, and even then with lukewarm apologies and other not so helpful responses. The moral of the story is that wading into social media without a plan, and more specifically, without a strategy for dealing with negative feedback can do irreparable harm to your brand.

So, I plan on spending quite a bit of time this coming year helping our clients avoid this kind of scenario. The way to do that is to first develop a cohesive social media strategy, just like with any other marketing campaign. Some key factors to consider when developing this strategy:

  • Your industry and which of your audiences you want to connect with (partners, potential employees, customers, prospective customers, etc.) determine to a large degree which social media outlets matter most, and how to communicate with those communities.
  • Be realistic about your own resources and commitment. For example, if you are not going to have something interesting to say on at least a daily basis, trying to engage on Twitter may not be the best idea.
  • Identify persons in your organization who will be posting to social media outlets; and making sure those are web savvy individuals with a good overall understanding of social media in general, and of your social media marketing strategy in particular.
  • Define a social media policy to document what is appropriate to communicate via social media, who can communicate on behalf of your organization and how to deal with negative comments.
  • Create a publishing schedule for posting to social media outlets – there’s nothing worse than a Twitter feed or Facebook wall where the last post is a couple of weeks old.
  • Develop a content strategy for social media communications (which should be part of a broader digital content strategy). The last thing you want to do is regurgitate the same content on your website, Twitter feed, Facebook wall, LinkedIn page, etc. Each of your social media outlets will likely have a slightly different audience, so you’ll need to tailor your message appropriately.
  • Develop and measure success metrics – as with any business activity you need to measure the effectiveness of your efforts. This can include things like how many followers you have, the number of posts from you or your followers/friends, or sentiment (are the posts from followers/friends generally positive or negative). It’s also useful to measure “conversions” from social media activities. For example how many followers or friends become customers, or more valuable customers, or whichever specific ROI metrics are relevant to your business or your industry.

As with anything else in the online space, these are just some best practices and not rigid rules. Like any other marketing strategy, effective social media engagement requires that you first have a plan, metrics to measure your results and the ability to adapt your approach as necessary. Have a fantastic and successful 2012!