There's a lot of talk these days about using social media to engage with your customers (and prospective customers). A huge amount of debate has taken place between those who argue that social media is crucially important to businesses today and those who say the emperor has no clothes.
Who is right? It's hard to say. It appears that there are companies which have used social media successfully and it also appears that a lot of money has been spent on social media campaigns that don't produce results.
For the business trying to make sense of it all and trying to figure out whether or not social media is a worthwhile investment, I think some cautious but prudent experimentation is probably the best route.
Here's some advice for the company that is interested in social media but isn't quite willing to jump in head first.
Listen, within reason. The big buzz word in social media circles is 'conversation.' What are your customers saying about you? But how can you listen to everything people say about your company?
Realistically, you can't. There are some good ways to monitor your 'reputation' online but unless you have a huge amount of free time to invest, you can't follow everything.
So pick a couple of free reputation monitoring services that allow you to keep track of your mentions and see what, if anything, pops up.
Don't respond to everything. Every time your company is mentioned doesn't necessarily represent a good opportunity to create conversation. You're not going to be able to respond to everything so don't make that your goal. You'll be overwhelmed.
Instead, focus on responding when it makes the most sense.
I'd argue that for most companies just getting started, it's worth responding most when some sort of misinformation is being spread about you.
If somebody is writing bad things about your company and using misinformation to back them up, for instance, jumping in and setting the record straight can be beneficial. It doesn't guarantee that you're going to change perceptions but it does give those who read the misinformation a counterargument to consider.
Be sure not to respond angrily or aggressively. Just post the facts and give others the opportunity to contact you if they have further questions.
Note that you probably won't be able to respond to every criticism you receive - nor should you. That's unrealistic.
If you're receiving criticisms left and right, you're probably better off going back to the drawing board and figuring out why people are unhappy instead of trying to respond to each and every complaint directly.
Use the right tools. Just because something happens on a social media website doesn't mean that a response has to be made there. Most conversations in real life are private so don't feel the need to hold a conversation with a customer, prospective customer or former customer out in the open just because you want to show that you're having the conversation.
If you come across a blog post about your company, for instance, and think a response is best made directly to the blogger via email, send that email. Don't feel obligated to post your response publicly because that seems like the social thing to do.
Invite. Sometimes the most powerful tool is an invitation. Instead of trying to create conversations, invite them.
Let people know that you're willing to talk to them on their own terms and give them the chance to make the first move. Oftentimes that's more effective than trying to be everywhere creating a conversation out of everything.
By taking a measured and conservative approach to your first foray into social media, you'll get a better feel for what's out there and whether or not it's something your business can benefit from.
You'll also get a sense whether it's something you can sustain. Jumping in head first only to pull back later can create problems of its own so it's best to take baby steps in my opinion.