When discussing social media with business executives, I'm frequently reminded of the fable of the elephant and the blind men. In the story, six blind men, hearing that an elephant has been brought to their village (and having no idea what an elephant is), go to the village square to investigate. One feels the elephant's side and proclaims that an elephant is like a wall. A second, feeling one of the elephant's legs, says it is like a pillar. A third, touching the tusk, describes the animal as being like a solid pipe.

Although each man's description was accurate, each perceived only part of the elephant; none had a perspective of the entire beast.

It's the same with many business executives and their views of social media:

  • "Social media? Twitter isn't appropriate for our market."
  • "Our company already has a Facebook page!"
  • "We don't have time to maintain a blog."
  • "Several of our people use LinkedIn."

Such statements reflect perceptions of "parts of the beast"—components (tools) of social media. But using one or more of those tools, with no clear objectives for benefiting the company, doesn't constitute a strategy.

Here is a four-phase adoption model designed to reveal the entire elephant that is social media.

Phase I: Observation

As Yogi Berra famously noted, "You can observe a lot just by watching." A bit of research and observation up front will make your participation later much more productive and prevent false starts and missteps.

Some of the questions to answer in this phase:

  • Where are people talking about our company, industry, and competitors? Which social media platforms do they congregate on?
  • What are they saying? What are the hot topics?
  • Who's doing the talking? Which voices seem to have the most influence?
  • What opportunities do we have to respond and participate? What kind of content seems to be most popular?
  • What questions are people asking that we can answer?

Social media monitoring tools are very helpful in answering those questions. Among free tools are Social Mention and Alterian's trial version of SM2. A wide range of tools is available with differing levels of cost and sophistication.

Phase II: Preparation

Every company with more than a handful of employees is already involved in social media—whether those running the company know it or not. That's because nearly half of all Americans are now active on at least one social network, including two-thirds of 25-34 year-olds. And though employees may be using these networks primarily to share pictures of the kids or to plan which clubs to hit next weekend, most will bring up the workplace at some point:

  • "Our new CEO, John Doe, is an incompetent jerk."
  • "I sure hope our new product works because we've really skimped on the testing."
  • "If I owned any stock in this company, I'd dump it now before the earnings announcement next week. Last quarter was a bust."

Though employees may share positive thoughts about your company with their friends, family, and followers, they may also post comments like those above, leading to bad PR, reduced sales, and even legal action.

One common objection voiced by executives about social media is that it can't be controlled. That's true, but when it comes to what a company's employees are saying, it can, at least, be guided. Developing a social media policy is a crucial first step toward making social media a constructive, rather than dangerous, communication channel.

Fortunately, there's no need to start from scratch, as there are dozens of social media policies from major companies available online to serve as examples. Outlines vary greatly, but here are a few of the essential elements:

  • The company's approach to social media. What are the goals, limits, and rules? A small restaurant will use social media much differently than a heavily regulated financial services company.
  • Guidelines. What's acceptable and what's not? Don't rely on "common sense." Spell it out.
  • Consequences and questions. Let employees know what will happen if guidelines are violated, and point them to someone who can answer questions for any "gray area" issues.

Once the decision is made to embrace social media, companies need to establish plans. Based on the research conducted in the Observation phase, the plan should address issues such as these:

  • What are the objectives?
  • Who will be involved?
  • Which social media platforms will be used?
  • How will results be measured?
  • What types of content will be produced?
  • Who will create the content?
  • How will content be optimized across platforms? (e.g., executive profiles on LinkedIn link to the company blog; blog posts are tweeted and posted to LinkedIn Groups)

Phase III: Participation

With the groundwork laid, monitoring in place, and plans developed and approved, the company can begin "officially" participating in social media—or, more likely, reassessing initiatives already in place, as many firms have already jumped into the social media fray without proper planning.

Less than one-third of companies in the Americas have a social media policy in place, and only half have a formal strategic plan.

Participation can take a variety of forms, from simple monitoring of and responding to brand mentions to actively creating thought-leadership, informative or entertaining content, and promoting across social media venues.

For companies that produce content, a blog is often at the center of the effort. More than half of B2C firms and nearly three-quarters of B2B vendors maintain company blogs. But blogs aren't the only option for sharing content through social media; among the content types are video on YouTube or Vimeo, presentations on SlideShare or myBrainshark, photos (FlickrPhotobucket), and PDF documents (ScribdDocstoc).

Once posted, content can be promoted through microblogging sites (TwitterJaikuIdenti.ca), social-networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook, and social-bookmarking sites such as DiggMixx, and Reddit.

The key to successful social media participation is engagement. Sharing content shouldn't be viewed as broadcasting to the market but rather as seeking to start conversations. The point is to draw in interested parties, key influencers, and ultimately sales prospects by engaging them in discussions and building business relationships.

Phase IV: Integration

Most companies think of social media first in terms of marketing and PR activities, and they begin their social media efforts in those areas. But those at the highest level of social media maturity and integration are using social media for a variety of purposes across the organization.

Just as it would make no sense to provide telephones only for the sales force, or email access only to accounting, there's no need to limit social media interaction to the marketing department.

At this advanced stage, companies may be using social media not only in marketing and PR but also in a variety of other areas, including the following:

  • Human Resources. HR departments use social media to recruit and prescreen candidates, improving new hire quality while reducing recruitment time and cost. Three-quarters of US corporations already use LinkedIn to conduct background checks, and nearly half do so on Facebook.
  • Customer Service. While no organization should overly rely on social media to resolve customer-service issues, it can shorten the "time to answer" some customer queries and reduce costs. Large enterprises that have incorporated social media into their customer service options include Verizon, Intel, Best Buy and Dell.
  • Sales. Social media has changed the buying cycle. Prospects are now much more informed before they even begin a dialogue with sales; they've researched alternatives, developed a short list of vendors, and know what key features they're after. The ability of buyers to do all of this before ever contacting a vendor has increased their expectations of salespeople as well; they expect sales pros to know what their company does and what challenges their industry confronts. Social media is valuable to the sales force not only for prospect research but also for generating leads and building credibility.
  • Product Development. Whose input could be more valuable to product development efforts than your customers' and prospects'? The Wall Street Journal has described social networks as the new focus groups because of the high value and relatively low cost of use. Because of potential legal issues involved in using someone else's ideas, firms often use public networks for basic research and rely on their own branded online networks, with clear rules spelled out, for more direct suggestions.

Ideally, companies at the integration stage not only use social media across departments but also ensure that efforts and information are coordinated. For example, HR should be communicating the same value proposition to recruits that Marketing uses with prospective customers. Product designers should understand customer-service issues to help improve products or make them easier to use. Sales and Marketing should align social media activities to avoid duplicated efforts or inconsistent messages.

When it comes to cross-organizational alignment of social-media use, perfection can't be achieved. But as Lexus constantly reminds us, it can be pursued.

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The Four Essential Phases of Social Media Adoption

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