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Managing Online Communities With Social Media

As social media's popularity continues to grow, more companies are joining the conversation. A strong strategy can ensure a winning effort.

June/July 10
Imagine grabbing a bite at a popular diner down the street from your company's new location. A conversation at a nearby table is getting louder. You overhear bits and pieces about low pay and bad benefits, quotas so high that quality is sacrificed. You cringe when you hear that the group is talking about your company.

Then, someone at another table interrupts. "Has anyone actually been in the new facility?" he asks. This person took a tour of the facility yesterday and was impressed by the equipment and the organization. Someone else adds that her husband works there, and the complaints about low pay and high quotas just aren't true.

You listen as members of your new community defend your company, presenting the facts and exposing the rumors. For many businesses, this is what happens every day on social media websites.

The Truth About Social Media
Social media is scary for a business executive. Businesses open a door and allow the outside world to look in. And the outside world talks. The person you didn't hire leaves anonymous comments. The small group that thought your new location should be preserved as farmland fires off a response. A union representative who wants to organize may join the conversation - right on your page. That's the bad side of social media. Here's the good.

"Nothing is more satisfying than seeing your customers or employees defend your brand without prompting," says Jeff Bodzewski, vice president of corporate branding at MS&L. As a consultant, he developed social media programs for brands including Nissan/Infiniti and wireless provider Cricket.

"The community begins to self-regulate and clear up misconceptions or false information," he says. "Conversations are happening online about your company, and the most common mistake is ignoring that conversation. It's better to be part of it."

What should you do before those defenders comment?
"The worst thing a company can do is take down comments and criticisms," Bodzewski says. "This is interactive. At Cricket, when someone criticized the company we wanted to know why. It was a chance to improve the company." When someone posts negative information, companies should see it as a chance to change perceptions, to correct a wrong, or to supply accurate information.

And what about the disgruntled job seeker you didn't hire who won't listen to anything you write?
"You do occasionally have someone that doesn't want to listen to reason," Bodzewski says. "I typically counsel businesses to block that person after attempting to interact."

The New Community
Social media and its myriad formats (such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and numerous other online gathering places) can play a vital role in introducing your company to a new community or saying goodbye to an old one. Some benefits include the opportunity to connect with prospective employees and local suppliers.

Social media also provides a way for your company to provide unedited and comprehensive information to your new neighbors about topics such as wastewater, traffic, or site usage.

Kevin Hegebarth, vice president of marketing for GMT Corporation, understands social media's value. GMT manufactures work force management software and started using social media last year. Hegebarth has found that his company's Twitter followers include industry publications.

"With Twitter, we're sending out mini press releases," Hegebarth says. "The big difference is we're not spending several hundred dollars to pay a wire service to get it out to publications or in the hands of reporters. We send a brief and reporters call us if they're interested."

But social media is just one form of media that should be in your company's arsenal.

"You wouldn't go into a new community without planning to contact the local newspaper or television or radio. Use social media because it's part of the community. It is social," says Marjorie Kalter, professor of marketing, advertising, and public relations at New York University. Kalter, who formerly served as executive vice president of the Wunderman advertising agency, managed marketing programs for AT&T and Kraft.

Social media works best when it is part of a comprehensive communications and marketing strategy, Kalter says. Her advice? Don't view social media as a novelty.

"Start with a plan instead of just opening a page," she says. "Social media is interactive. You have to maintain it."

GMT Corporation has done just that with its social media strategy.

"Social media posts are just tools," Hegebarth says. "They are amplifiers. The content of the message and how the message will resonate with people is what really matters."

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