Imagine you've been invited to the most anticipated cocktail party of the season. Well in advance of the event, you anticipate the people you will meet and the exciting conversations you will have. Finally the evening comes and, as you arrive, the hostess greets you at the door and offers to take your coat. Before you head into the party, however, she stops you and hands you a piece of paper. She explains that the paper lists the people at the party you're allowed to talk to and provides a script for each conversation you'll have. When you inquire why she would do such a thing, she replies that she was worried that someone may say the wrong thing and that the whole party could be a failure if a conversation goes awry.
This, unfortunately, is the path chosen by many large organizations when confronted with social media. They see it as another PR channel and address it in kind - in traditional PR you wait for a big event, huddle your best communications minds, and craft a message that is released as a canonized, official response to the situation. Think back to the cocktail party... Traditional PR is analogous to another guest circling the room, listening to conversations, then getting together with his friends before announcing loudly to the rest of the room what his opinion is on a specific matter. This would get that guest cut off from the cocktails, if not asked to leave.
Social media is much more a cocktail party than a press conference. The success of a party is measured as the sum of many smaller interactions, as opposed to one big interaction. You can have the best theme, the best decorations, and the most carefully scripted set of interactions for your guests and the party will still be a failure if the guests don't have the opportunity to make interesting discoveries about each other over the course of the evening. Think about our hostess - she would have done much better for herself by playing the music at the right volume, having the right snacks and cocktails, and giving the attendees enough room to move about and make new connections, rather than try to control the affair from the top down.
Similarly, enterprises should look to enable their advocates in the social space, rather than lay down the law with prescriptive behavior and constraints on messages. Likewise, success cannot be measured at a macro level - it's not an ad campaign on a television broadcast. The organization should allow those that are living and breathing in a specific content area (industry, service, geography, etc.) be their mouthpieces in that domain. To return to the cocktail party, it's better for the enterprise to have a number of well-informed, personable attendees engaging in conversations that are relevant to others in that conversation than to be the lout spouting his opinions to the room. At the end of the night, success is based on the number and quality of smaller conversations had by the individual attendees.
When it comes to executing on a social strategy, don't start at the top. Obviously, you need buy-in from leadership, but in order to get started a firm shouldn't start with the generic top-level content stream. It would be better to pick a specific content area (again, informed by industry, service, etc.) and let someone who is well-versed in that topic take the lead on building a following and communicating with them. Then measure and analyze your performance in that domain before scaling it into another.
So back at the party - imagine if the hostess, after taking your coat, hands you your favorite cocktail and says, "Have you met Sara? You two have similar interests and I imagine you'll have a lot to talk about." Think how much more rewarding that exchange would be for you both as opposed to following a script. Ultimately, the entire party will be more successful for the hostess when everyone has a great time.
So, start small and begin realizing successes early. Scale up and share best practices between those advocates interacting at the edge of your organization. And, finally, sit back and enjoy the party.