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How to Build a Social Networking Policy

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The social media landscape has experienced rapid changes and growth over the last few years. Not surprisingly, its increasing popularity means that many of your employees are probably already involved in any number of social media networks or online communities. Given that we spend half our waking lives at work, it is perhaps inevitable that some of these workers will end up as the inadvertent social media facade of your organization.

Why Create a Social Networking Policy?

While it would be difficult to predict the future of social networking a dozen years from now, the explosive growth in the influence of this new media seems unavoidable. As the social media landscape continues to evolve, it is also becoming clear that social networking tools can be leveraged as a powerful multiplier of one’s marketing or public relations (PR) efforts.

This is evidenced in the way large corporations are hiring digital or social media managers, or incorporating such roles into the primary job responsibilities of existing PR or marketing executives. As companies strive to cash in the rewards of successfully engaging social media, guidelines are required to formalize a company’s strategy in this new, uncharted terrain. In addition, there is a need to recognize and protect social media practitioners within the company.

Eight Tips for Creating
a Social Media Policy

A good social media policy is like good art.
It's often hard to explain, but you know it when you see it.

Taken together, it is clear that there is a need to craft a proper social networking policy so as to maintain a degree of consistency in your organization’s engagement of social media. So what does a social networking policy consist of? The quick answer might be to point you toward a sample of a simple social networking policy on ITBusinessEdge.com, but my intention in this article is to walk you through the steps needed to create a more comprehensive policy for your organization.

First Stop: Define Social Networking

Defining social networking might seem redundant, but is important in order to properly establish the bounds of your policy. While it would not be possible to name all the social networks or tools out there, a recommended approach is to highlight the most prominent ones, and update the list from time to time.

Certain online interactions might not initially appear to be related to social networking, though, another reason why it’s a good idea to identify them in advance. Some examples might be conducting a technical discussion via webcast, posting of photos taken at company events, or sharing non-proprietary work documents on the Web. Properly defining the tools and activities serves to eliminate ambiguity, and will be useful when it comes to the next step: selling the idea to management.

To get an idea of the more popular social networks and tools, you might want to take a look at the Social Networking Tools Comparison Chart (pdf) compiled by the University of Minnesota.

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Sell the Idea to Management

As usual, proceeding with the creation of a new policy or plan without a clear mandate from management is a sure route to failure. This is especially true for a relatively new phenomenon such as social networking. In order to succeed, it is imperative that the relevant managers or senior executives are in agreement with the creation of a social networking policy, and kept in the loop on its progress.

Another benefit of seeking an official go-ahead is that it opens the door to two-way communications with the relevant executives at the earliest possible stage. As such, pertinent feedback or concerns can be conveyed from the get-go, even as the direction and scope for the initial draft of your social networking policy is being determined.

Outline the Business Objectives

One question that is sure to be on the minds of management will be how social networking can help meet business objectives. A caution must be stated at this point: Social networking is about genuine and open interactions. So while it is perfectly fine for a company to expect social networks to help advance its business, this should be done in a manner that does not stifle creativity or exert overbearing control of communication channels.

Sample Social Networking Policy
Check out our popular sample media policy that works for nay business.

And where, traditionally, business is premised on the concept of control, "be open, be transparent, be authentic" are pretty much the current leadership mantras in social media, observed Charlene Li in her upcoming book Open Leadership. Li is the founder of Altimeter Group, a digital strategies consultant company. What she is saying, in a nutshell, is that the new world order of social media demands openness.

Within the framework of communications outlined above, very real business benefits can be derived from playing the social media card correctly. For example, social media can help bring about greater effectiveness when it comes to public relations, crisis management or even corporate marketing and brand building.

Assuming a moderate level of success in bringing about bona fide interactions on social media networks, businesses can tap into these additional channels of communication to gain a greater insight with customers to deliver the best possible customer service experience. Forward-looking organizations will also seek to drive improvements within the company this way, with an eye cast toward lead generation.

Finally, organizations seeking to leverage social networking to a whole new level will discard a piecemeal approach, instead examining how they can fuse traditional marketing and PR roles with social networking for greater returns.

 

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Coordinate with Existing Policies

One common topic that companies will face pertains to maintaining the secrecy of operational procedures or unannounced products or services. The argument for a “hands-off” approach here is that social networking is just another venue of communication, and does not by itself add or subtract from the equation when it comes to maintaining secrecy or where compliance laws are concerned.

In the process of tweaking your new social networking policy, what must be remembered is the continued importance of openness and genuine interactions. Just as we are geared to detect any hint of dishonesty with an acquaintance or a stranger that we’ve just met, your social networks will similarly be tuned to attempts at duplicity or interactions that are not genuine.

There will also be situations in which the usual way of doing things conflicts with the spirit of social networking. For example, old paradigm rules such as those requiring all copy to be vetted through PR, legal, or marketing (often all three) – simply do not play well with the openness and pace of social media communications, and will need to be updated.

If traditional PR and marketing can be likened to the filming of a movie, then social media interaction is akin to giving a speech for which the salient points have been identified, but which is otherwise unrehearsed. Anything more coordinated will quickly feel like a marketing pitch or advertisement, and will swiftly erode any modicum of trust that has been painstakingly built up.

Create User Guidelines

Eight Tips for Creating a Social Media Policy
A good social media policy is like good art.
It's often hard to explain, but you know it when you see it.

Once the inevitable contradictions between your new social networking policy and existing policies are ironed out, it is time to define the guidelines for what constitutes acceptable online behaviors. A snippet of these guidelines could range from the mundane about respecting copyright and fair use, not to cite or reference clients without first getting their permission – the list goes on. Generally, user guidelines for social media engagement will serve to complement existing business conduct guidelines, not contradict or replace them.

Some standards will never change, such as the need for basic courtesy and conduct, and avoidance of faux pas such as posting personal insults, obscenity, vulgarity or ethnic slurs. In a nutshell, engaging in social media does not mean that employees leave their common sense at home, or recklessly broadcast to the world what they would hesitate to share in a public speech or via face-to-face conversations to customers.

To help you along, IBM has published a detailed list of Social Computing Guidelines on its company blog, which might serve as a good starting point when it comes to creating a similar reference for your users. (I really liked the advice, “Don’t forget your day job.”)

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Getting Users On-Board

Sample Social Networking Policy
Check out our popular sample media policy that works for nay business.

While there might already be users engaged in the use of social networking and identified as company employees, the likelihood is that only a handful of staffers are involved in this manner. As such, there might be a need to encourage them to sign on – having a social networking policy makes sense only if there are users engaged in social media in the first place.

To spur the uptake of social media engagement might entail the appointment of team leaders or executives either as bloggers or to actively engage in social networking. As this will likely constitute additional workload, it makes sense to factor the social media contributions of these employees into performance or annual reviews, if possible.

Depending on your company’s exact social media ambitions, it might be a good idea to have differing tiers of user engagement to recognize and compensate staffers accordingly. A “Casual” tier could have staffers who are subjected to the company’s social networking policy, but who are not compensated in any form. Someone in the “Evangelist” tier might be an employee who is expected to contribute more, but whose contributions are recognized as part of the employee’s job scope.

Educate Users on the Policy

Users will need to be educated on the new policy, whether they are employees tasked to represent the company on the various social networks, or staffers who are already engaged on their own initiative. As appropriate, it might also make sense to reproduce the official social networking policy in the employee handbook, as well as having it accessible by electronic means.

Depending on the work culture and staffing exigencies, it is a good idea to conduct periodic training to educate employees on how to behave online. Topics could include topics such as how not to pick “fights” on the Internet, or ways to gracefully correct or recover from mistakes or erroneous statements.

A separate training session could be extended to supervisors or team leaders to help them understand how their own social media activities can influence their teams, and how to leverage their blogs to communicate with their teams in a positive manner.

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Monitoring and Follow-Up

The conventional management adage that “What cannot be measured cannot be managed” is certainly appropriate with social networking. As such, it makes sense to put proper monitoring measures in place to monitor whether desired outcomes are panning out.

The metrics here will obviously differ from conventional ones, but are hardly rocket science. Basic examples could be tracking the number of followers or fans, as well as audience engagement level in terms of comments or word of mouth. Conventional tools can also be brought to bear in many cases, such as using Web analytics to determine the click-through rates, or relying on URL-shortening services to gain a better insight on the geographical spread of referrers, for example.

Where ensuring adherence to the company’s social networking policy is concerned, one way is to set up a monitored IM (instant messaging) channel or dedicated e-mail account where employees can report inappropriate social media interactions by their colleagues. This should help ensure a greater accountability and help rein in communications that goes against the company policy – before they spiral out of control.

Conclusion

Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom – Excerpt
This book offers a detailed view on the ways social networking affects the world of business and work.

Applied properly, the strategic use of social networks will allow a David to outmaneuver and outrun Goliaths, or for heavyweights to propel their reputation and brand awareness to greater heights. As social media gurus Matthew Fraser and Soumitra Dutta summed up in their book Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom: How Online Social Networking Will Transform Your Life, Work and World: “The unique characteristics of disembodied identities in the virtual world can radically transform rules that traditionally govern social groups.”

Social media engagement is about radically transforming the traditional battlefield of marketing and PR. Your social networking policy, in turn, is the rule book that defines the guidelines used to wage and win this war of the new media. While beginners new to the scene might mistake the presence of a policy for social networking as nothing more than a protective mechanism, the truth is that it exists not to limit but really to liberate participants.

The season is still early for the great social networking race, and the opportunities are aplenty. So fasten your seatbelts, start your social media engines, and have a blast of a ride.

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