Thinking About a Social Media Strategy: A Few Elements to Consider

In my writing role at work , I occasionally post updates on behalf of our IT organization to various social media channels, such as Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, our blog, and a user forum.

Most of my activity on these social media channels is sparse and sporadic — a few minutes on an occasional hour. However, lately I’ve felt that we aren’t tapping into social media’s potential. We’re hardly using it at all, despite the fact that we have a sizable following.

As a result, I decided to think more about developing a real social media strategy. In coming up with a social media strategy, there is a myriad of hard-to-answer questions, but the whole process of thinking through them has given me more purpose and motivation. Below are a series of topics and strategies that any corporate social media maven should consider.

Broadcasting versus listening

The first question to assess is how your company views social media. Many people view social media as mindless chatter and distraction. If this is how your company views social media, it’s unlikely you’ll get support to dedicate enough time to implement a real strategy. With a non-support model, the infrequent tweets on the occasional hour may be all the bandwidth you can spend.  And the return most likely will be similar: an infrequent response from an occasional follower at random times.

But suppose you change your strategy from one of broadcasting information to a strategy of listening? Instead of only publishing updates, you use social media to gather information, ideas, and feedback from to your followers. What are they posting about? What are they feeling? What are their hot buttons and interests? And who are they?

This information could be useful for informing product directions and communications. The more you listen to your followers, the better chance you have of releasing products that meet your followers’ interests. In this light, engagement on social media is more of a user research endeavor than a marketing endeavor. It’s a way to get a pulse on what your users want, what frustrates them, and what interests them.

This user research paradigm radically changes the social media endeavor. Rather than pushing information out to inform your followers, you’re pulling information in to inform your company. This direction changes the whole tone of social media. It changes it from a potential stigma of “mindless chatter” to a respected effort for understanding user trends and issues.

Generating content

Although listening is important, unless you also post content on these channels, you’re not participating. But what should you post, and how often should you post?

In general, most companies post news and and articles related to their products and services. They also post tips, resources, events, and other information that aligns with their company’s direction.

This information gathering takes time. One way to solve the posting bandwidth issue is to assign the social media updates to an intern. After all, interns are social-media saavy and inexpensive, right?

However, if the employees posting to social media sites aren’t in the loop about the latest projects, releases, initiatives, or other organizational goals, they may find it difficult to know what to say. What they post may not align with your company’s mission.

According to Meredith Singleton and Lisa Melancon, an intern or young employee may not have the knowledge needed to guide the social media endeavors with the right direction. They explain:

Someone must have ownership of the social media strategy. The initial reaction is to look to the new intern or the youngest employee because he or she is probably using many of the tools, but this can be an unsuccessful choice. An individual’s goals do not always align with a company’s goals. Individuals are often looking to share personal thoughts, photos, and news with family and friends—probably not the same goals as a company. The strategic choice is someone who understands the mission of the company, the goals of implementing the strategy, and how the tools, and the message delivered therein, may have positive or negative effects.” (“A Social Primer for Technical CommunicationIntercom. June 2011.)

In other words, although it may seem logical to designate a young, social-media savvy employee to handle the social media updates, such an employee may not have the right information and direction to post in alignment with the company’s goals. The social media maven needs to be saturated with the right company knowledge and direction.

Regardless of whether you’re a senior or entry-level employee, saturating yourself with this knowledge does’t come easy. You’ll likely have to spend time attending meetings, keeping up with news and other information, integrating yourself across groups and departments, reading company-related news, and contacting key leaders.

Staying in the information loop takes time, but the information you glean feeds into other endeavors as well, such as producing content for your company blog, wiki, or other news channels. As such, it will probably be most efficient if your social media crew sits on the same team as the ones publishing to the blog and other news channels.

However you gather it, you’ll need a constant stream of information to publish out — probably at least three updates a day to maintain visibility with your audience.

Note that you don’t always have to post new information. You can mix up your posts with questions, tips from help material, information about lesser known (but not new) resources, employee highlights, or retweets of industry-relevant posts.

Brand and voice

Let’s talk about brand. You know you need to follow an established voice, style, and message with your updates. What do your followers expect when they see updates from you? How do you want your followers to view you? According to Jay Baer, your brand should be distilled into one word that encapsulates what you’re all about. For Apple, he says that one-word brand is innovation. For Disney, it’s magic. (See 3 Steps to an Effective Social Media Strategy.)

Whatever your brand, you represent your company in some way. If you work for a large organization, as I do, and your brand involves technology (perhaps because you’re in an IT department), you’ll likely get questions about all the technology your company produces. When readers reply with questions, how will you support so many questions, for so many products, from so many departments, with so many product owners? Will you speak on behalf of product owners about their products? If you don’t respond quickly, will users still think you’re listening?

Even if it takes time, answering the questions is important in establishing the authority and expertise associated with your brand. Answering the wide variety of questions will require you to be in constant communication with various product owners through your organization. It will require you to contact them about the responses you should post. You may see your role converting to a support routing board of some kind, a go-between who finds answers to questions of all kinds.

However, rather than looking at this support routing board role as a drawback, consider the connections you’re making. Not only does your involvement in social media make you visible to the outside community, it makes you highly visible within your own company. Your constant contact with product managers, departments, and other groups can increase your team’s visibility and awareness of your role across the organization. (Again, in small companies this may not be significant, but in a large organization with many silos and unknowns, these connections can be a huge advantage.)

Finally, your connections with users help demonstrate a tangible benefit from your social media endeavors. Product owners will see the impact the social media engagement is having. Hopefully they will not see the users’ questions as another annoying e-mail to reply to, but rather as an opportunity to peer curiously into the usually murky void of actual end-user space and time.

Demonstrating ROI

Another question to consider in your social media strategy is how you track and demonstrate your success. After all, someone is paying the bill for you to be on Twitter and Facebook on company time. And though you may see a lot of responses, retweets, likes, and other activity surrounding your posts, how can you measure the effect you’re having? How can you communicate that effect to upper management, so they recognize and feel the value of social media engagement?

Each company may be different, but I imagine most would agree that increasing the adoption of company products, as well as the awareness of company products, would fit into a worthwhile ROI. Other factors, such as a stronger relationship with the company, or more positive corporate perception, are harder to measure.

You could easily track several metrics related to increases in adoption and awareness. You could track the increase in followers. You could track the retweets of your posts and the reach of those retweets (using tools such as Tweetreach). You could periodically send out polls to your users to gauge their awareness and adoption of various company products, and measure changes to these responses over a period of time.

However, these measures are somewhat inaccurate. Followers grow gradually over time regardless of one’s efforts. It might take a viral campaign to establish a direct correlation between social media and the results. A good example is the Old Spice campaign. Lauren Fisher explains:

Through their campaign, which included sending personalised video messages to social media fans and celebrities, they’ve managed to gather some pretty impressive stats that show the money where the buzz is. The reach of the Old Spice campaign is not in doubt, but did it actually impact sales? According to the marketing agency behind the campaign, it did. Since the original campaign launched with ‘Mustafa’, sales increased by 27% year on year. But in the 3 months after the height of the campaign, sales were up by 55%, reaching 107% in the final month of the social media campaign. And of course, Old Spice is now the number 1 body wash brand for men. However you choose to look at the campaign, these figures stand up to show that a social media campaign, well executed, can drive significant ROI for your business. (The ROI of Social Media: 10 Case Studies)

When your content goes viral, and you trend on Twitter and gather hundreds of likes on Facebook, you can probably draw up some persuasive graphs about the value of social media engagement.

Even if you can only show a  slow and steady progress, this progress may align under a larger marketing effort for your company’s products. If it aligns under a marketing effort, you have less burden to justify the social media effort in the first place. After all, not many would say, “We don’t need a marketing plan for our products!” If you’re doing marketing on Twitter for your products, Twitter becomes just one more marketing avenue to get the word out.

Other considerations

I haven’t covered a hundred other questions one should explore in a social media strategy. For example, what social media channels should you focus on? Is it better to restrict your involvement to just one channel so that you can go deeper, or is it necessary to spread your efforts evenly across a variety of channels? Should your profile reveal  your own self or simply be the company’s logo? Should you follow your audience when new followers follow you? How do you surface the predominant trends of thousands of followers in a short amount of time? What safeguards do you have in place for the time when you make a huge gaffe and mispublish information?

These are all valid questions, but I don’t have the space to explore them in this post. What I have written covers the most important elements of a social media strategy: listening, generating content, finding a brand and voice, and measuring ROI.

The overall key, I think, is to remember that information flows both ways: you treat your audience as a group who can inform you just as much as you can inform them. With such a relationship, social media efforts will have value.

photo from Flickr

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

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  • Laura Palmer


    What I really enjoy in this post is the big issue at hand: Technical Communication and social media. I don’t see social media as residing exclusively in the realm of marketing or PR; it’s a place where all of the communication professionals belong. Per Scott Abel, it’s time for us to partner with marketing, develop relationships with product managers, and ultimately impact the customer experience in positive ways (Abel, 2011). Technical communicators have the expertise and knowledge to contribute to the conversation and, in my opinion, social media is a place where we’ll shine.

    That said, social media is a new place for TC and you’re very right to be thinking about the role of strategy. This spring I took my ideas about social media, strategy, integration, and communication practices and turned them into an undergraduate TCOM course. To me, the reason was obvious–our students need coursework that prepares them to use social media as part of their professional practices of communication in the workplace. The “young, social-media savvy employee” isn’t generally savvy in the way employers require. Hiding Facebook party posts from mom’s sight is less of a job skill and more of a survival-in-college skill. Companies need employees who have professional social media competencies and who can–after they’ve had time to absorb and understand the brand and its messages–represent the company across multiple, integrated social media channels.

    I hope I’m shaking out what Abel calls the “outdated notions…..espoused by old school academic types” via teaching an integrated social media class. I very much see the need to reconsider what a TC degree is today in terms of courses offered. Your thoughts on social media strategies for organizations are certainly a starting point for a larger conversation in this area.

    • Tom Johnson

      Thanks for your comment, Laura. I’m glad to see that you’re emphasizing social media in the courses you teach. In my experience, social media in the corporate realm doesn’t have nearly the strength of the independent voice. Most companies engage in social media out of a need to appear current. If a company lacks a social media presence, they must be archaic, right? But with this mentality, the company hardly engages at all, and only responds occasionally. I have more thoughts on this, but I have to say, despite the good ideas in this post, I haven’t been able to implement them very well.

  • DiSc

    I have been thinking lately: there is a strong push towards making documentation “social”, or at leat a widespread feeling that it makes sense to. Sarah Maddox and Anne Gentle, among others, convincingly write about it.

    But does it always make sense to “go social”? And what business models would profit from it, and what profits would not?

    It is not much different from going open source. Eric Raymond admitted that it is not always a good idea to go open source: some companies might find it useful, others might not.

    I think a lot of the TW profession is somehow “stuck in the ’80s” and its goal is broadcasting and not conversation. At first sight, this seems like an obsolete attitude. But is it?

    Can someone justifiedly say: our company’s documentation will never go social?


    • Tom Johnson

      I think that to go social with documentation means to use a wiki as a platform. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin — these are broadcast channels to communicate with users, but tech writers probably don’t own these channels in a company. Additionally, I’ve seen much better ROI with wikis than with social media (unfortunately).

  • Gurpreet Singh

    Hi Tom,

    Calculating ROI on Twitter is really challenging. A marketing campaign on Twitter is more like a mild dose of medicine which works slowly and the results are visible only after a long period of time.

    Do you recommend any method, other than number of retweets, to keep track of tweeting ROI?

    It may be a coincidence but yesterday night I blogged about 10 twitter hashtags for technical writers.

    Here is the link:

    – Gurpreet

    • Tom Johnson

      Thanks Gurpreet. I checked out your post on metrics — good thinking. This topic is rich with many different perspectives and strategies. Thanks for increasing the knowledge about it, especially with your readability measures.

  • Gurpreet Singh

    Thanks for reading my blog, Tom. I appreciate your kind words.

  • Johnny

    Your broadcasting vs listening part is very interesting, and it’s what most companies should start doing. So many times I’ve seen questions, tips or feedback from customers on Facebook and Twitter, yet there were absolutely no answers. No matter how big you are, it’s always good to help each and every customer. Maybe your help will guide them towards your product instead of the competition, and they might recommend you to friends and family.

    As for ROI, I think it’s quite hard to know the exact numbers, especially if you are new to social media. The Old Spice commercials were surely something amazing, and companies will probably try to copy it.

    • Tom Johnson

      Thanks for the feedback. I didn’t get too many comments on this post, so it’s reassuring to know some found value in it. I too agree with the broadcasting versus listening strategy.