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The internet is talking about you behind your back

Lindsay Herbert Head of Digital (Global)

Web 2.0 has turned the internet into a giant virtual playground where the choice is to fit-in or fall-out. Thanks to social networking sites, your brand, products, and services are up for round-the-clock criticism and review. And while it’s tempting to dismiss as a passing trend, 200 million active users on Facebook, 90 million unique monthly visitors to YouTube, and 6 million active tweeters on Twitter (and counting) prove otherwise. But the good news (and what this article will tackle) is that it doesn’t take a whiz kid to learn to play nice.

YouTube, Twitter, and the BNP

To appreciate just how mainstream social media has become, you only have to look to BNP leader, Nick Griffin's recent controversial appearance on BBC's Question Time. Not only did host David Dimbleby encourage viewers to comment on the live broadcast via Twitter - causing a storm of tweets across the world lasting over 24 hours - but he also referenced YouTube multiple times during the debate as an indisputable source of public record!

Time to start thinking long-term

Like it or not, social media is here to stay. It's estimated that by 2010, Generation Y will outnumber Baby Boomers and 96 per cent of this group is already using social networking on a daily basis. Add to this the growing adoption rates among older consumers of sites like Facebook and YouTube, and the choice is clear: join the conversation or lose touch with your customers.

Old tricks won't work

That being said, you also can't barge into social networks all handshakes and business cards - social networking requires its own tailored approach that bears almost no resemblance to traditional advertising or business networking. Facebook profiles spouting mission statements, Twitter feeds pushing ad messages, and corporate promotional videos on YouTube are likely to be ignored as spam, ridiculed as antiquated marketing, or worse, black listed and banned altogether.

Hapless Habitat learns the hard way

Habitat learned this lesson the hard way by abusing hashtags on Twitter in an attempt to reach bigger audiences. Hashtags are used on the microblogging site to help users identify trend topics, such as #iphone. By adding #iran to their ad-based tweets during the Iran election in June, Habitat had millions of people reading their tweets - people who were relying on Twitter as their only means of non-government controlled communication about the Iran opposition movement.

Unfortunately for the hapless marketers behind this move, the public outcry was so severe it made news around the world with headlines like "Habitat Uses Iran Twitter Spam to Pimp Furniture". Habitat issued a public apology for the tactic, but the massive damage to their brand and reputation had already solidified.

Getting started in social media

So what is the right way to build a presenceon sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube? The truth is, if you're looking to make an impact and generate multitudes of fans, followers, and subscribers, it's worth speaking to experts in the field to create a social networking strategy. Because social networks present such huge opportunities for engaging with customers, collecting feedback, and promoting messages, your social media strategy deserves the same thought, planning and expertise as any traditional communications plan.

However if you're just looking to get your foot in the door and keep tabs on what's being said about you and your sector, here are some general tips to get you started.

Be a participant, not a broadcaster

Social networks are designed to connect people with people - not customers with brands. Before setting up a profile for your organisation, start your own personal account to gain an understanding of how people converse on the site, what techniques they use to post effectively, and to get practice posting your own information (this is especially true for Twitter and its tricky 125-character limit). You can also look up your competitors to see how well they're using the network, as well as other organisations who are appealing to the same audience base as you. When you're comfortable conversing as yourself, remember to keep that same tone even when posting on behalf of your company. Saying ‘we' instead of the company name and being conversational instead of formal are rules to live by no matter what site you're posting to.

Listen and respond

Dell uses Twitter to great effect by simply scanning the site for tweets that mention the company in a negative light, and then responding directly to the user with suggested solutions. Like Dell, you can search sites like Twitter and YouTube for your company or product name, along with keywords relating to your brand, to find people who are commenting about you. From there you can offer compensation to the people complaining, rewards to the people praising, and incentives to the people on the fence. While this might seem like a small drop in a large bucket, online communities take notice when big companies acknowledge the posts of their users, and if handled well, the positive response can even travel further than the original negative post.

Make your posts worth the read

Naturally, anything you post on a social site needs to support your wider business objectives - whether it's to raise awareness of your brand, promote a particular product, or attract new customers. But whether you're posting a status update on your Facebook public profile, a tweet on your Twitter feed, or a video on your YouTube channel, if the people on the receiving end can't instantly tell how it's doing to benefit them, they'll leave your page faster than it takes to press ‘unsubscribe'. Contests, events, give-aways, and free helpful advice are the bread and butter of any successful brand on any social network. Before posting anything, ask yourself why your audience will care about it and if it seems like only hardcore fans will be interested, it's probably better saved for your website.

Remembering our mum's advice

Specifics aside though, the age-old advice we all used to make it through the real schoolyard works just as well in the virtual one: be nice to people, don't try to put on airs, and if someone's saying nasty things about you, talk to them to find out why they're upset and how you can get them to stop (and if reasoning fails, nothing says ‘friends forever' like a free gift!).

How we can help

For more help on social networks and how to manage your e-reputation, the digital experts at Precedent are here to help. Whether you're just getting started or looking to launch a social marketing campaign, we have experience crafting digital strategies for clients from a wide range of sectors and would love to hear more about your company, its objectives, and how online communications can help further them.