Why You Need A Social Media Policy in 2010

Policies are dull. No one wants to create them, no one likes to read them and certainly, few desire the job of enforcing them.  But they can play an important role in outlining the rules of engagement around a particular set of online behaviors and have a strong role to play in the face of new situations where the there are no standards.  This is especially true with the wild west world of social media in business.

There are so many (too many?) social tools available to employees – for free, any employee can create a Twitter or Facebook account, create a LinkedIN or Xing profile, hook their email to Plaxo, start a blog, write a post in a forum, leave a comment, rate an article and the list goes on.  But what can and should they be doing with these powerful tools?  In one fell swoop and well-meaning person can damage another person’s reputation or threaten the confidentiality of a corporate initiative.  Just yesterday, for example, I saw a colleague has tweeted about a new contract providing social media guidance to a company that is on one of my client’s competitive watch lists.  We now know, with some degree of certainty, that we need to watch that competitor closely in the future as they are likely to emerge with some social media footprint. This information, in turn, has accelerated my clients competitive approach.  The Tweeter was just expressing joy about a new client.  But the ripple effect was used to impact change.

Most companies enter seriously into the social media sphere as a result of a crisis.  Something bad happens and then it is like a peewee soccer league where everyone reacts and runs towards the ball.  This is not an ideal situation to be in and mistakes are often made as positions are not well played.  These social media crisis situations can happen to anyone and can be minimized with proper planning. On the flip side, organizations can *create* positive opportunities for the company by helping employees understand what is OK so they can be free to communicate positively.  If you have 20K employees you now have the power to engage millions of people by leveraging the reach of your staff.  But if staff are uncertain about what they can and can’t do online, many will avoid the social channel which can be a missed opportunity for the company.

As Enterprise-level social media gains widespread adoption in 2010, it is time to help guide staff to understand what is expected of them online and as a representative of the company.  In many ways, the goal of an effective policy is not to squelch social media usage but to clearly define what is and is not acceptable for employees as a representative of the organization.

Some questions to consider when formulating a plan:

  • What is your company culture like? Make sure that the social media policy reinforces company culture –  an informal organization will have a different policy than, say, a government agency.
  • How do you want the employees to engage with clients and prospects? Take into account the in-person sales and marketing channel strategy and align the social media policy to those best practices.
  • What is considered confidential to your organization? Spell out what hind of information can and can’t be shared publicly.
  • How should staff represent them selves to others? Standardize or provide guidelines so that there is an evenness to your online footprint.  Should all sales staff, for example, use a similar moniker in their twitter name or is it up to the person to decide?
  • What does transparency mean to your company? Too often people confuse personal opinion with company-representation.  Can a staff of your organization share displeasure with the company’s product or services online without disclosing she work for your company?

Once a policy has been developed, don’t stop there – people need help understanding what it all means.  Provide training and examples to illustrate the points.  Social media is so new to many people that there is no single shared understanding and skill level.

Social media policy is more complicated than a list of do’s and don’t – it need to account for human behavior and focus on how to leverage the social channel appropriately.  Your staff are online, and here is the opportunity to make the most of it and help them succeed personally and professionally along the way.

Vanessa DiMauro

Vanessa DiMauro is the CEO of Leader Networks. A pioneer in business-to-business community building, Vanessa has been creating successful online communities and networks for more than fifteen years. Vanessa is a popular speaker, researcher and author on the topics of online communities, social and professional networking, and Web 2.0 for business. With a research background, Vanessa takes the approach of a cultural anthropologist to help businesses effectively use social media to get closer to their customers, generate revenue, innovation and tangible ROI. She has founded and run leading online professional communities such as Cambridge Information Network (CIN) for Cambridge Technology Partners, Computerworld Executive Suite and CXO Systems' Peer Visibility Network. She consults with many organizations on Web 2.0 for business and has a blue chip client list which includes Cisco, Cognizant, EMC, LexisNexis, The Palladium Group and SAP. Vanessa DiMauro was recently named a 2009 Research Fellow for the Society of New Communications Research and also serves as an Executive- In-Residence at Babson College, for the Olin School of Management. Women in Technology International (WITI) named Vanessa DiMauro one of "Boston's Most Influential Women in Technology". She holds both a B.A. and an M.A. from Boston College.