A marketing person should always ask one key question when beginning to develop a social media strategy: how much chaos can this organization handle?
If you're working for a pharmaceutical company, a bank, or a company that makes baby food, the answer is generally "not a lot." Even freewheeling brands that make soft drinks and salty snacks tend to be a pretty conservative and risk-averse lot. Their answer to how much chaos they can handle: "well...a bit."
But the honor roll of next generation companies tend to be completely comfortable in an environment where anything may happen. Companies that dive into social media and let everyone tweet seem to be unconcerned that something may get said that will be taken the wrong way or used against them in a court of law. The people who work at big brands have every right to be envious of this crowd and long for the freedom they have to get engaged with consumers and have open and transparent conversations about what's going on.
The fact remains, however, that businesses just can't operate this way. We may idolize the open-source, community-driven start up, but it's hard to sell that to a legal department. It's hard to sell it to the IT department. It's just simply hard.
Luckily, that's about to change.
A Bit of Structure Goes a Long Way
The problem many managers have with allowing social media to spread through their organization is that there's no structure -- not to what is being said, who is saying it, or even to the data itself. It's all just so free flowing that it would be almost surprising for something to not go wrong.
Primarily, this has been the case because people inside of companies tend to go directly to social networks to engage with social networks. That is, if someone in the marketing department wants to use Twitter, they go to Twitter's site and start typing.
This would be fine if that person was the only one tweeting within the company, but that's never the case. If one person is tweeting, you can be sure that someone else is as well. And there's a great chance of those two people saying conflicting things, causing (at the least) confusion among consumers.
But what if those people didn't go directly to Twitter to use Twitter? What if they went through some centralized tool that was owned and managed by the company they work for? That way, all actions could be managed, coordinated, and tracked.
Laying an interface on top of Twitter provides exactly the sort of management layer that would enable a corporation to control a "comfortable" level of chaos. They could assign the engagement in social media to key individuals. They could take snippets of content (the 140 characters of a tweet for example) and traffic those out in the same way that they do an ad.
This insight into the management that companies need is driving an entirely new category of tool: social CRM (define); and it couldn't come at a better time. A recent report released by Cisco claims that, while social media is spreading through organizations like wildfire, governance and control isn't. Faced with the potential to have to stop doing social media out of head-office concerns, we should expect marketing departments by the truckload to begin adopting and installing social CRM systems.
This move will ultimately help support the continued use and growth of social networks by marketers. The network owners -- Twitter, Facebook, and so on -- will hopefully see the value in these systems and work more closely with their developers. The network owners will need to realize that their future is directly tied to how comfortable companies are with using their system; a tool that provides that comfort will go a long way.
Social is (again) following the same path as search: once there were third-party tools in place that allowed for measurement and management, the purse strings loosened and real growth occurred.
Today, a handful of tools enable some level of the management over social media that corporations and marketers need. HootSuite and CoTweet have become popular, but certainly others are available. Each one allows a group of people to coordinate among themselves to have a consistent, singular voice in social media.
The tool, however, is never more important than the craftsperson. Even if you have a system in place that allows for coordination, rules and practices are still needed to mandate coordination. Internal policies and decisions about the way in which the brand plans to engage and interact with its customers in this space is really where the first set of changes will come from. These new management tools will help make that easier.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
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