Business Needs to Understand the Rules to Play the Social Media Game

By Jason Menard,

The wonderful thing about working in communications is that it’s an ever-changing gig. Just when you think you have things figured out, something else pops up – and the whole game changes.

With that in mind, how do you know what rules to follow so that you – and your company – can win?

I grew up with a background in journalism, which I think has served me well in my corporate life. I try to write not like a biz-bot, but rather I strive to write copy that’s engaging, informative, and – if at all possible – entertaining.

And I don’t spin.

But as social media has grown over the past few years, so too has it changed the dynamic of corporate communications. No longer can companies sit back, pump out press releases, and wait for phone calls that can be handled by upper management. Consumers and observers expect more out of corporations. That doesn’t necessarily make the old rules obsolete – in fact, some of them are more relevant than ever.

So if social media is the new game for business, what’s the best way to play? First off, let me state that I’m no expert. I have experience and I think I’m pretty good at the various aspects of my job. However, there’s plenty of room to improve and I’ve still got lots to learn. The minute you think you know everything, the world passes you by and you’re a dinosaur.

That’s why I’m so leery of social media experts. Just like yesterday’s SEO gurus, the dynamics of business change so quickly that we can only hope to keep up with the pack – not define the course it takes.

When you talk with people involved in social media, you’ll hear certain phrases: transparency, engagement, branding, control, and content. All are important, but the first thing to throw out there is that there are no absolutes in communications. Let’s start with transparency. It’s the mantra of the social media guru. Companies should be open, honest, transparent, and share information with their clientele.

It sounds nice and all, but it’s also not entirely feasible. Yes, companies should be upfront and honest with their customers and associates – but to make that an absolute, blanket statement is false. The reality of the situation is that there are often valid reasons why companies keep information under wraps.

Yes, we’ve heard of the nefarious ones – most often illegal – and those are the situations that get the most ink. But there are a number of relevant competitive, developmental, and proprietary reasons why a company shouldn’t share everything. So where’s the line? Each company has to decide that for itself.

I wouldn’t advise any company to freely share its research and development information with its competitors, but I also don’t think the old mushroom technique of keeping people in the dark and shovelling… well, you know how that finishes.

A simple mantra that’s good to keep in mind? OK, since you asked so nicely: tell people everything you can, tell them what you can’t, and tell them why. Most people are rational beings – they’ll understand if there’s a legal/economic/competitive reason preventing full disclosure, and they’ll be appreciative of your honesty. Those who aren’t? Well, they’re not the type of people who are going to be satisfied with anything, so you really can’t worry about them.

What about engaging your customers? Should you have a Facebook page or a Twitter feed? Do you need to update it every two minutes? And what should the content be? Again, it comes down to your business’ goals. If the only reason you’re on Facebook is because everyone else is, then that reason isn’t all that valid. However, if you’re committed to interacting with your customers and – most importantly – providing them valuable content, then you have a great platform upon which to build your brand.

How do you build that community? By writing stuff that people want to read. Several companies are in danger of turning social media channels into virtual junk mail. Your product marketers are always going to want to push product, but is that really what your customers are going to want to read? If you received a flyer a day with products, how soon would it be until they went straight into the recycling bin? And once that happens, like oversaturating e-mail inboxes with borderline SPAM messages, you’ve destroyed a very viable channel for communicating with your customers. By wasting time with irrelevant messaging, you’re undermining your efforts when you have a message that may be of value to your customers.

Of course, having your social media representative posting photos of their kitty and telling your customers what they ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner doesn’t bring any value either. You have to find the balance.

Social media lets you humanize your company, which in turn increases customer engagement and loyalty. By creating funny/warm/interesting content and engaging in conversation (after all, it is social media), you build up a strong foundation upon which business-related or product-related messaging can be launched.

References from friends and family still carry a lot of weight in terms of transactional decisions. Of course, the opposite is also true. A negative review or statement from a trusted cohort will colour your opinion of a company even if you’ve had little to no interaction with them. Don’t forget that your press room and your media releases still exist. Use them, but by adding social media the right way, you can complement those efforts nicely.

The easy answer for business using social media? Write what people want to read. Be open, be as honest as you can, and – most importantly – be human.

It’s a social game — remember that and don’t behave in a way that makes you the type of person you’d avoid in social situations.

2 thoughts on “Business Needs to Understand the Rules to Play the Social Media Game

  1. Desiree

    You hit the nail with the line between transparency and when not to disclose. I am a huge fan of transparency but for competitive, legal and economic reasons there should be a limit. You are right, each company needs to define what they disclose and not. For example, when someone is laid off, does that need to be displayed via social networks. No. How about when money is wasted…do we openly admit that. No. Nice post.

    1. Jay Menard Post author

      Thanks Desiree. I appreciate your comment. I think too many people are making blanket statements about social media and communications in general. Just like anything, you have to assess each situation on its own. Great comment.


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