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Remember when your mother said you couldn't go to a classmate's party and you tried to build your case by saying that all your friends would be there? Then she asked whether you'd follow them if they jumped off the roof.

Well, guess what? If your organization has been struggling to set up social-networking pages because everyone else is doing it, maybe you should heed your mother's old advice.

It's true that social media has become the most popular marketing channel since the advent of the Internet, but marketers (and those who are responsible for marketing) need to develop a solid strategy first, as with all other tactics, before testing the new waters.

Whether yours is a small or midsize company, nonprofit, or public institution, if it's not yet in the social-media space you should know up front that entering and playing in that space is going to take an investment of time and effort.

And even those organizations that have been tweeting and networking for a while should stop chasing social media without the following three essentials in place.

1. A Professional Website

Although some marketing experts claim that blogs are quickly replacing websites, most people will visit company websites to learn more about your products, services, or mission. Your website's landing pages are also the destination point from external links in online news releases, published articles, videos, or any social-media entries and blogs in which you've posted a URL or other hyperlink. If your site isn't ready for prime time, you can lose those visitors in seconds—and reduce the odds that they'll come back.

Equate this situation to staying with friends out of town. You've planned a visit with them for months in advance; you're excited to see them and anticipate a positive experience. But, when you get there, you find their home is disorganized, difficult to move around in, and (frankly) unattractive. You feel so uncomfortable that you decide next time you'll stay in a hotel and not return to their home. See what I mean?

Your organization's website should have the following elements to attract and retain visitors:

  • A professional and consistent design and look that are easy on the eyes
  • Easy-to-read text
  • The organization's name and a clear explanation of what it does
  • Menu options that are easy to navigate
  • Contact information or contact links on every page
  • Content that is compelling, informative, credible, authentic, and relevant— focused on the "customer" and error-free
  • Few bells and whistles that take too long to load
  • Working links

Although 63% of consumers and small-business owners turn to the Internet first for information about local companies, and 82% use search engines to do so, only 44% of small businesses have a website and half spend less than 10% of their marketing budget online, according to research from WebVisible and Nielsen.

In the nonprofit sector, a recent study by Foresee Results found that people use the same standards to judge nonprofit sites as they do to judge private-sector sites. Accordingly, it's crucial for nonprofits to invest in their online presence to increase satisfaction and make visitors more likely to donate, join, volunteer, etc.

Participating in social media can help your organization build brand awareness and possibly generate leads; but before you post links to your site (or landing pages) to entice target audiences with more information, ensure that your site has all the essential components to make it professional and functional.

2. An Understanding of the Social-Media Rules of Engagement

If you jump into the social-media space without a solid understanding of its rules and best practices, you may commit social-media harakiri without even realizing it. There are certain protocols that will become evident to you as you read and observe others. Learn from them first, and you'll avoid alienating your audience.

Here are some valuable rules, some of which have been derived from a blog post on ploked.com

  • Know your online identity. "Knowing your online identity as well as letting others know up front who you are is important in establishing trust among the online community."
  • It's not about you. Social media is about community; it's not about what you do and what you market. Show interest in others and offer value, or others will see through your self-interests.
  • Do not jump in and promote your products, services, or mission. Wait and build your reputation on the networking site first before you begin to promote anything. Contribute to the online community, help solve users' problems, and develop friends and followers.
  • Read and learn first. Observe users and get a feel for their interests, attitudes, and personalities. Take the time to "listen" and learn before delving into the community.
  • Don't mix business with pleasure. Keep your friends and family profiles separate from those that you use for your organization or company. Friends won't care about your latest promotional effort, and customers won't care what you did on the weekend.
  • Be positive. Don't say anything that will come back and bite you, and avoid getting defensive when someone says something negative about your organization. Take a deep breath and wear a public-relations hat when you respond.
  • Go slowly. You don't have to join every social-media site at first. Take it slowly, and establish your identity on the one or two sites where your target customers are before you take on more. It's better to participate more frequently in fewer sites than infrequently in many.

3. An Understanding of Available Online Tools

It's important to know the available online tools, particularly those for beginners and intermediate participants. Chris Brogan, described such tools in a MarketingProfs article titled "Social Media Starter Kit: The Tools You Need."

His blog post titled "100 Personal Branding Tactics Using Social Media" also provides valuable recommendations.

While you're looking, check out "13 Essential Social-Media 'Listening Tools'" by Clay McDaniel and the wealth of other resources in the MarketingProfs library of Social-Media articles.

Again, start slowly, using the tools that you find easy to learn. You can build on your knowledge and engage other tools as you become more proficient.

* * *

Although millions of organizations and companies participate in social media, many have overlooked the aforementioned essentials before taking the leap. If your organization hasn't yet begun, take the time to develop a social-media strategy that will help guide your participation and content as well as build a foundation for better results. And if you have already been engaged in this space, evaluate how many of those essentials are in place. There's always room for improvement.

You know that social media can help you achieve your marketing goals. But sometimes a skeptical boss can stand in the way of a good social-media campaign. Check out Getting Buy-in for Social Media for great tips on how to get your boss on board. As a Premium Member, you have free access to hundreds of Premium articles, case studies, templates, tools, research, and "how-to" guides to help you rapidly build effective marketing programs. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Elaine Fogel

Elaine Fogel is president and CMO of Solutions Marketing & Consulting LLC, and a marketing and branding thought leader, speaker, writer, and MarketingProfs contributor. She is the author of the Beyond Your Logo: 7 Brand Ideas That Matter Most for Small Business Success.

LinkedIn: Elaine Fogel

Twitter: @Elaine_Fogel