It's easy to begin using Social Media and the cost of entry is very, very low. As a result, many organizations feel compelled to begin using social channels without thinking through exactly how they will use them. Even though it's easy to begin using social media, using it effectively can be difficult at best.
At the core of the problem is that most organizations ignore the "social" in social media. They look at it in the same way they look at traditional media, only free (or relatively close to free). They see it as an easy way to blast more PR messaging and create opportunities to click through to more traditional content. Using social media this way will quickly get you ignored.
So, how should social media be leveraged? I thought it would be useful to look at social media through the lens of another similar exchange. The world is full of chefs with varying degrees of success. At the heart of a person's interaction with a chef is a basic transaction: you give me food, and I give you money. Most chefs use the same basic ingredients and cooking techniques. Why is it that some chefs get more money in that exchange? I've put together a short list:
Use higher-quality ingredients
One of the first things a chef learns is that if you don't start with high-quality ingredients, you're food is already at a disadvantage. You don't want to spend your time and creative energy compensating for ingredients that are inferior. If you start with the finest ingredients, you can focus your efforts on items later in this list.
The core ingredients in your social recipe are all some kind of content. Whether the content is yours or someone else's, make sure the basic content you're pushing out or linking to is of interest to your community or following. One way chefs guarantee that their ingredients are fresh is to use ingredients that are in season. The same goes for your content. If you make sure your content is timely and in-line with the current general conversation, your content won't appear stale.
Mix your ingredients in new and interesting ways
Chefs all begin with the same basic ingredients. They differentiate their recipes (for the most part) by varying the proportions or introducing new flavors to the mix. A surprising flavor or a shift in focus from savory to sweet can make all the difference in a recipe.
Social channels create new and interesting touch-points with your targets. Unlike traditional media, there is a back-channel that allows for communication rather than broadcast. One recent example was the Old Spice Twitter/YouTube campaign. What was interesting to me about they way they ran this campaign was that they used the technologies in a way that played to the strength of the channel.
They solicited questions via Twitter so they could collect them in real time (and as a bonus, limit the length of the questions). They could have responded via Twitter, but that would have constrained their voice back to the audience and undermined the elements that made the campaign funny. So, instead, they quickly created response videos and posted them on YouTube. Not only did the campaign sell more Old Spice, but it created significant buzz and it forged a new kind of relationship with its customers. This campaign would not have been as successful limited to one channel.
Another lesson to be learned here is that, instead of being just an amplifier and forwarding content that you find interesting, add some color commentary or a new twist. Take a couple of ideas and draw a line between them. A good example of this is Chris Curran's CIO Twitter Dashboard. In the spirit of full disclosure, I helped Chris implement the Twitter Dashboard. But, one of the interesting things about setting it up was that, using only data that was already available online, we were able to create a self-forming community of CIOs. We started with only 50 or so CIOs, but when other CIOs found the dashboard they wanted to be a part of it and we've helped them form a mesh of Twitter following that allows these CIOs to communicate with each other. It was possible to add value for an entire community just by using the data in a new way. Today, the dashboard includes more than 300 CIOs.
Pay attention to the experience
This is the most important point in the list. As a parent of two young children, I am well aware of the effect a first impression can have on a meal - it can be the difference between a happy dinner and an hour long battle to "just try it!" As an adult and novice foodie, I know it goes beyond the first impression. A quality presentation gets the meal off on the right foot, but textures and how the flavors follow each other all contribute to the experience. There is also a reason that ambience figures so strongly in restaurant reviews. A skilled chef knows that they are selling you an experience, not just a meal.
In the social realm, it is much the same. You are not just peddling individual servings of content; you want those pieces of content to add up to a meal - an experience. You want your targets to grow a more comprehensive picture of who you are as an organization with each new interaction. You want them to explore other items on the menu and, in doing so, continue to fill in the white spaces in their picture of your organization.
There are many reasons Facebook has been more successful than MySpace, but first-and-foremost is that Facebook provided a better experience. Facebook is coherent and has a consistent, pleasing ambience - while MySpace is like some sort of casserole made of everything in the fridge served on public transportation. It's not that Facebook hasn't been without its glitches, but it has grown the experience over time and has listened to the complaints raised by its users, which brings us to our next point...
Listen to feedback
A good chef gets out of the kitchen and mingles in the dining room. That way, the chef can get an idea of how people are reacting to their food, listen to compliments, and get a feel for the "vibe" of the room and if the food is in line with that vibe. If you just stay in the kitchen and never take a look at the food being eaten, you will never know for sure if the experience is what you were hoping for.
There are a multitude of tools to listen to the social sphere to see if you're activity is having the desired effect. You can use link shorteners like bit.ly, is.gd, or ow.ly to shorten the links you post and track click-throughs. You can use Twitter search and trending tools to see if you're name or content is having the desired ripple effect. There are also a number of third-party tools for social monitoring. However, if you have the resources you may want to roll your own social data and analytics capability. Doing it yourself guarantees that you are focusing your efforts on gathering and analyzing just the data that's important to your organization.
Why spend so much time and effort listening? Not only does monitoring the social sphere show you how well your content is resonating, but it will uncover new touch-points and conversations in which you can participate. You can listen to what the people you are interested in are talking about to make sure you're saying things of interest to them. And, most importantly, it keeps you engaged in the dialog and continues to give you new things to talk about.
Make them want to come back for more
If you start with only the freshest ideas while they're in season and avoid canned content, find new and surprising ways to combine that content, make sure that the experience of your content is a good one, and seriously listen the broader conversation, you'll have an audience that's already planning it's return visit before they even finish dining. At a minimum, they'll stick around for dessert.