As part of my doctoral research, I conducted qualitative research with people who had experience with using online social networks (OSNs) in their workplaces. The aim of the research was to develop a starting point for a framework for developing best practices for the use of OSNs in organizations.
The results of the qualitative inquiry identified a number of suggested best practices for organizations considering the use of OSNs. The elements presented below are intended to help serve as a starting point for organizations.
The elements have been grouped under the categories of strategy, listening, communication, guidelines, training, diffusion and measurement. As the usage of OSNs becomes more prevalent, and more history with OSNs is examined in future research, this set of suggested best practices can be extended and clarified over time. Below is an initial framework for consideration.
Planning for OSN implementation should tie back to the organization’s strategy, goals and objectives. To this end, it is helpful to align the level and type of OSN planning to the planning culture of the organization overall.
“Align the strategy with the culture – if the culture is open to it, trial and error may be fine; otherwise it can be a disaster.”
Organizations that are more structured and methodical in their planning will likely benefit from a more structured approach to developing and rolling out an OSN plan. For this type of organization it will make sense to develop a concrete plan with reasons for using OSNs, and expected results. For organizations that favour a more iterative or adaptive approach to planning, starting with a tentative OSN strategy that can be adapted as needed may be the best approach, making adjustments as learning takes place.
“Don’t try to over-plan an approach to using OSNs. The most important thing is to start using the technologies, play with them, and figure out how to use them as you go along. Otherwise you can end up paralyzed by over-planning and losing valuable time relative to the competition.”
As noted above, the key is make sure there is an alignment between the planning style and activities that the organization uses overall, and to fit the OSN planning efforts into that style.
It is important to scan the environment and observe what is being done currently with regard to OSNs. This scan should include looking at what the competition is doing, as well as what is being done in other types of organizations and industries. It is equally important to understand what the behaviour and needs of the organization’s customers and stakeholders are. This will be helpful both in terms of not re-inventing the wheel, but also in terms of fitting an appropriate OSN approach to the needs of key stakeholders. It is important to research where the intended audience currently spends time, so that the organization ends up adopting the appropriate tools and platforms to reach that audience most effectively.
“Listening is a key activity that should be a goal of an OSN strategy. It is critical to be listening to what is being communicated by customers, and by competitors.”
Another role for listening is being aware of the fact that OSNs are not merely broadcast media, but are also an important means by which customers and other stakeholders can communicate with an organization. Missed messages represent missed opportunities. One suggestion is to have a “designated listener” on staff, someone whose job it is to monitor developments in the social networking arena, as well as monitoring actual communications from customers, stakeholders, collaborators and competitors.
A communications strategy for OSNs should be part of an overall coordinated communications strategy for the organization. As OSNs represent a unique medium, they require a unique approach to communications. In particular it is essential to be regular in communicating and to have engaging, relevant and value-rich content that meets the needs and interests of the audience. It is suggested that a professional communicator be used to design the communications strategy.
“Focus on quality not quantity. Focus on the experience you are creating for the customer. Focus on being a real person and being available to help… Ensure that what you promote is what you are.”
The importance of being authentic in OSN communication has also been emphasized in the qualitative interviews. The OSN representation of the organization should be in alignment with the brick and mortar organization.
It is important to develop guidelines that govern the appropriate use of OSNs, confidentiality and disclosure of information. These guidelines should be supplemented by training of all staff. As one respondent noted, it is useful to keep in mind that there is nothing fundamentally new about OSNs; they are just an enabling technology the same way a telephone and a fax machine were. It can be helpful to look at how the organization has dealt with other new technologies in the past, since there may not be a need for entirely new strategies, policies or guidelines. Though policies and guidelines can help mitigate negative consequences of using OSNs it is still necessary to have a plan for handling negative results, accidents or missteps.
“Need pre-planned answers and rules for interactions before negative comments and situations are encountered. Have a policy for negative situations and make sure everybody understands it. Hope for the best and plan for the worst. Be clear that social media leaves you open to detractors, so have a strategy in place for handling this.”
Establishing written corporate policies and procedures from both an employee and departmental perspective is recommended. A good starting point for this effort is to look at the existing policy frameworks the organization already has for items such as security, access, usage, confidentiality and see if these can be adapted for OSN usage, rather than coming up with a whole new set of guidelines.
In order to effectively use OSNs, organizations need training on best practices for OSN usage, both for new hires and for existing employees. For example, it can’t be assumed that all employees know how to use OSNs or how to use them effectively and in agreement with company policies. It may be worthwhile to create a controlled task force for the first several months to convey valuable information to employees on how to use OSN tools and what employees need to know about representing the company on OSNs. Employees need to know they are representing the company at all times on OSNs and they same rules apply online as offline. OSNs are a tool to help empower employees as advocates of a brand or an organization, but those employees need to be trained to know what the appropriate behaviours are.
Earlier in this study, the role of early adopters in the diffusion of new technologies was discussed. The role of champions and influencers in a roll-out of OSN usage is very important. It is critical to identify these people within the organization – as well as in other stakeholders such as customers or collaborators – and to encourage these key people to assist in rolling out the usage of OSNs. Tying performance measurement and reward systems to the successful championing of OSNs in the organization would be a good way to attract and motivate the appropriate champions inside the organization.
Management should set expectations and measurable goals for OSN usage. For example, what percentage of the time will the employee need to utilize social media to meet sales and referrals, against the total actual sales and referrals generated in a specific time period. Consider having audit and compliance measures implemented via neutral third-party vendors who can monitor, evaluate and measure productivity and feedback from a client perspective. Most OSN activities should have some sort of customer conversion as their ultimate goal. Conversion does not have to mean a sale, but some sort of action that is desired on the part of the audience. It could be clicking though to a website, signing up for a newsletter, or simply asking for more information. With the desired conversion in mind, a better social networking strategy can be developed. All marketing campaigns that make use of OSNs should be able to be tracked and measured for success. Not all metrics surrounding the use of OSNs need to be hard and analytical though – a blend of hard and soft metrics, such as anecdotes and success stories, can be very valuable.
“Focus on basic success metrics. These need not be too analytical. If you are putting out good content, and it is reaching the right people, that can be sufficient. Anecdotal results and good stories are just as important as hard metrics.”