You can’t move for someone somewhere talking or writing about just how important social media is these days. The world and his mother are constantly looking at their Facebook timeline (yes, it’s still raining and, yes, your children are still amazing) or checking how many followers they have on Twitter.
A whole host of businesses, from individuals making their own jewellery and small independent cafes to established retailers and huge multinationals, feel the need to have a Facebook page, a presence on Foursquare or a Twitter feed, or to start selling and advertising on social commerce sites, like Groupon.
With all this noise, it’s tempting to think you should jump in immediately, get a presence on a few of these platforms and see how it goes. But just as you wouldn’t dream of starting a major advertising campaign or outsourcing exercise without doing the homework, you shouldn’t dive into social media without careful planning.
Before going any further, it is worth considering exactly what we mean by social media – it isn’t just Facebook and Twitter. You probably haven’t even heard of half of the tools you can use (I haven’t either, although I probably shouldn’t admit that here) and if you have, you almost certainly don’t know what they do.
As well as social networking (Facebook), blogging (WordPress) and microblogging (Twitter) there are collaboration tools (Wikipedia, but not, Wikileaks), virtual worlds (Second Life), location services (Foursquare), video (YouTube) and photo sharing (Flickr), social bookmarks (Pinterest) and social commerce (Groupon).
All of them require some sort of ongoing investment and engagement to make them effective – it is not enough to post odd bits of information about your business as an alternative or complement to banging out a press release.
The real difference between social media and more traditional platforms is that it allows you to create the message by gathering, sharing and commenting on information. It defeats the object simply to fill a Twitter feed with information about your yearly profits or new CEO and it is not going to win you any friends.
But even once you’ve worked out why you want to engage (higher profile, new business, more customers, better publicity) and how you want to do it, you have to make sure you are going to keep at it. Blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages are worse than useless without regular updates and new content.
So don’t think of social media as just a plaything, a bolt on you can amuse yourself with when you can’t face doing your tax return. Just like any pet, it needs to be taken care of and you only get out what you put in. You can really only adopt the puppy if you can feed him, take him out every day and provide him with continuous amusement, because the last thing your business needs is abandoned puppies blocking the entrance.