social networking best practices


Social networking sites create walled gardens for people and communities to develop and interact. One of the most popular social networking sites in the past 5 years is Facebook, which initially was only available to people with a .edu e-mail address. Facebook has since opened its doors and anyone is welcome to join.

Think of social networks like cafeteria tables in middle school. People with common interests and ties come together to create a social network. That is, a network might be just for people working or studying public relations, as is the case with PR Open Mic, or it might be for people with a shared personal interest.

Social networks are growing in popularity, and the older networks (like Facebook) have opened their membership up further beyond their initial charter. Social networks are where people go to talk to people like themselves. In some cases, users know these people in real life and in other cases they find one another based on interests.

Seeing this increased adoption among the public, organizations began also setting up profiles within social networks as a means to further connect with their audiences. Organizations who have been most successful in these endeavors take time to survey the community, understand the values and rules of engagement. In short, they pay attention to the culture and identify what is accepted before they join. When they join, the organizations who have had success within social networks remember that this isn’t a place for traditional public relations tactics but a place for engagement. These organizations don’t always just talk about themselves, but they have real and human-toned conversations with real people.

Hosting

Before deciding to host content (for example, a page in Facebook) on a social network, the company should ask itself several questions:

  • Why does the company want to use this network?
  • Is this the best network?
  • What are that network’s terms of service and are they acceptable?
  • Will this community accept the presence of the company or will it go against the network’s culture?
  • What precedent has been set for other similar organizations’ interaction in the network?  (Benchmarking and case studies)
  • What options are available for a company presence within the network (ex: Facebook allows “page” or “group” option for organizations, additionally company leadership may have their own personal profile)

Once these questions have been answered satisfactorily and the company has determined that a presence in the social network has benefits that outweigh the consequences, the company can move forward.

It is suggested that the company spend a good deal of time monitoring the network and understanding the internal culture before setting up a presence. This is covered in the above pre-hosting checklist where the company PR practitioners review the network to ensure the climate is conducive to organizational presence and the case studies of similar organizations who have begun hosting a presence within the network.

The company should only set up a presence in the social networking site if it can dedicate the time, attention and manpower to adequately maintain the presence. This level of “adequate” should be defined by precedent determined through benchmarking and case studies. In most cases, the company should remember that this space is a place to build relationships with their stakeholders and have very personal, meaningful interactions with them. The page should not be one-way asymmetrical communication. It should be interactive, responsive and human in its approach.

All information communicated by the company through the social network should be considered an official release of information. That is, it should not contain classified or otherwise nonreleaseable information. The communication should be professional and meet the normal standards of ethical and excellent practitioners.

It is not appropriate to use a social network simply as a means to re-purpose PR material. Companies should not simply link to press releases or other official content from their social network presence, as such activities are merely promotional and likely go against the community culture.

Resist the urge to main the front page of the microsite all your content, that you as the company has added. Instead, post comments from users/friends/supporters/fans or content showcase what they have added to the site. Even if it is your site, it isn’t all about you. People will be much more interested in what an independent third party says about your company than whatever PR prose you’ve posted up there.

Companies should encourage interactivity within the network to engage their stakeholders. For example, in Facebook the official page of a summer camp might have “fans” of the page post memories related to the camp. The company should have a clearly posted comment policy. The company should also encourage user-generated multimedia such as videos or photos to be posted. Again, if this is done the company may consider moderating this content and should have a very clear and posted policy in place.

There are several means that can be used within the network to promote a company’s presence. If there are other similar groups (non-competitors), the company can become “friends” or “fans” (depending on the nomenclature of that specific network) of these groups. Understand that when doing so it may appear to be an official endorsement of that group. In many cases, this is not prohibitive, but it should be remembered. If the network allows widgets which pull content from other sites — such as a Flickr photo badge or Twitter feed widget — these should be placed within the social network company presence. Content can be cross-promoted across platforms, such as a Twitter message announcing a “Sea Stories Saturday” where users on a commercial cruise line may be encouraged to go to a Facebook page and share their sea stories or a posting a YouTube video on the Facebook page about a trip on that cruise line. An events page, if available, can be made to promote upcoming company events – both virtual ones and real-life ones – to the fans/members/supporters. Finally, the URLs for the company presence in the social networking site should be listed in e-mail signatures and other materials as appropriate to drive traffic to the content.

Two of my all-time favorite social network uses are PR Open Mic, which brings together practitioners and students (oh! educators too!) into one place where they can talk about public relations, and Graco Baby Products’ Facebook page. Two very different tools — Ning runs PR Open Mic and Facebook powers that Graco microsite. Two very different sets of audiences — public relations professionals & future practitioners vs. mothers. But two very engaging & execllent social networks!

Engaging
Social networks are places for like-minded people to congregate and interact online. As such, each social network has a very specific culture and set of values. When entering any social network, care should be taken to understand the ways people within the network operate and how other organizations are allowed to interact/how organizations are perceived.

Engagement should be a second step when entering an online activity. The first step is monitoring, engagement and then possible hosting of a presence for the company.

Even though the Internet is a mass communication medium and social networks are public spaces, the level of personalization within them is typically high among users. That is, there is typically a connection between two users before they interact with one another. Sometimes this is a real-life connection like friendship and sometimes this is a virtual connection made possible through a common interest. Thinking of the people one interacts with through social networks as “friends of the company” and remember that they are actual humans will help the PR in engaging. This is a one-to-one conversation — never a mass blast to a faceless group of people.

It is suggested that once a set of followers/fan/members/supporters is amassed that you not abuse them by sending too many messages or only pointing them to material on the company Web site. While you may be tempted to send out messages weekly or with every new blog post or news release, only send out messages to all your fans for extremely special occasions — such as a live event kicking off on the page. When sending these messages always include a call to action.

Ensure that the conditions are set for two-way symmetrical communication.

Monitoring
Monitoring content online in a specific social network or community should be the first step in getting involved in social media. There are several free sites online which enable social network monitoring.

  • Addictomatic does a multi-network search to pull up mentions of keywords from YouTube, Twitter, blogs, social bookmarking sites and more
  • IceRocket enables searches of blogs, social networks and imagery, separating returns by tabs at the top of the page
  • Technorati is a classic blog search for mentions of keywords or URLs linked to across the Web. Technorati Chart – search for blogs on a specific keyword, & compare conversations based on terms.
  • SamePoint (link may not be working right now) – monitors conversations in all social media and set filters
  • SocialMention – offers a “social rank” score and some top-level summary of sources of mentions
  • Google Alerts – delivers realtime returns on keywords from blogs and news outlets
  • PostRank – tracks re-sharing based on any original feed
  • Trendpedia – repeat of the Technorati compare chart
  • Trendrr – specify data sources and customize the reporting you get to a much more robust level

The first step for companies is to set up a systematic monitoring process. To do this, a specific set of keywords to include the company name, acronym for the company, topics, issues, leadership and common misspellings for each of these should be generated. All of these should be keywords should be searched on daily for conversation monitoring. Next, the tools to gather the conversation should be selected. Tools listed above, such as Addictomatic and IceRocket, are suggested and often used by agencies specializing in social media monitoring. Then, the company must identify what elements of the coverage they wish to monitor.

Suggested monitoring “coding” for each social media element discovered:

  • Tool through which item was published (Twitter, blog, Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, etc.) – reveals whether one tool has more conversation about
  • Username or URL for published item – enables tracking if one person in particular discusses company frequently
  • Date item published – enables tracking over time of aggregate data
  • Topic/issue discussed – devise a list of company-specific over-arching topics or issues and track each time one is present in element
  • Linked to company WWW presence, if so which one – record whether the element actually linked to a company Web site or other online presence which would funnel readers of the element to company content
  • Interaction/conversation with company – determine whether the element began or continued a conversation with the company
  • Tone – determine if it was positive toward company/company issue, neutral in that it was fact-based or negative
  • Language – record language item was published in
  • Circulation – when possible, record the readership for the item. Readership can be number of Facebook friends, number of Twitter followers, number of unique visitors to blog, etc.

Metrics

  • Count number of fans/members/supporters
  • Count number of posts/wall comments/discussion/forum topics within page
  • Ratio of new members/fans/supports to people who left the group
  • New members/fans/supporters who join per day/week/month
  • If using Facebook, employ Insights (built-in metric program for organization pages only)

Facebook specific metrics
“Facebook Insights” is the first page you will see when you go to “Ads and Pages.” Clicking on the word “Insights” underneath the title of the page will show you more in-depth demographic statistics for each menu item, including gender and age range. You can also access this page from the Editing dashboard by clicking “All Page Insights” on the right sidebar.

With Insights you can review statistics on page views, unique views, total interactions, wall posts, discussion topics, fans, new fans, removed fans, reviews, photo views, audio plays and photo views. The default graph shows page views, so to see a different graph click the arrow next to the title of the page and a drop-down menu will appear from which you can choose the graph you want to view.

Check Insights weekly to monitor activity on the Facebook page. Be aware of when a spike in page views coincides with certain uploaded content. A spike in page views may signal that the most recently uploaded content is particularly popular with users. Upload similar content in the future to bring even more people to the page. For example, if you post an interesting link and note that your page experiences a spike in traffic, look for similar links to post because you now know that topic is popular with your audience.

Note that the “Page Views” graph can be misleading because it counts all page views, including multiple visits from the same person. The “Unique Views” graph gives a better idea of the amount of traffic coming to the site since it counts individual people instead of individual views.

Watch for new fans and note when they join the page. If there is a fan drive or announcement sent out over the listserv about Facebook and then you see a spike in new fans, it could mean people were not aware of the Facebook page before your announcement. Use conferences, newsletters and events to make announcements and raise awareness of the Facebook page. Check the fan statistics after these events and announcements to see if more fans join. If you do not see an increase in fans, you will need to increase your marketing of the page.

To download daily or weekly reports of the data and have them delivered to your account, click “Export Data” below the page name at the top of the screen. This way you can share the information with people who are not on Facebook.

Note: this blog post was written compiling about a million (no less!) different other blog posts that offer much better advice than I … I wish I still had the links so if you have any links (which were probably my original sources, best practices or updates please put them in the comments.

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