Last month, I wrote about the and the growing sense that many clients feel they have to do something now -- today -- about it. In some cases, it's enthusiasm that's the motivator, in others, it's fear. Either way, every company is afraid it will lose ground to its competitors unless it acts fast.
On more than one occasion lately, I've met with clients, who, when confronted with a view into the state of their online reputation, wanted to move immediately to tactical solutions out of a desire to simply do something. The sentiment is understandable, but the energy behind it needs to be harnessed so that any actions taken support not only the social media strategy but the broader brand and marketing strategies as well. That's why holding off until a detailed strategic framework can be developed from the findings from the initial audit is so crucial. Thanks to Tom Petty, everyone knows the waiting is the hardest part, but the additional time should not be significant, while the payoff will be.
So, assuming you've done the research to establish where things stand, you're armed with a swath of research that conveys in detail the status of your brand's online reputation and you have a plan to move forward. The question is: what do you do next?
Assuming that you've a) done a comprehensive audit of where you (or your client) stands in online social networks, b) built a sizable stack of research that documents sentiment toward the brand, and c) devised a plan to move forward, what's the next move? Engaging with online communities, whether you're dealing with a message board, blog or social network, is challenging. While most online communities like to consider themselves open to new members and ideas, like communities everywhere, they still have established rules and culture that all members, new and old, are bound to respect. You can't go into a community and start blasting away with your message. To the contrary, at the outset, you should be prepared to focus on giving rather than getting. Building goodwill should be a cornerstone of your engagement strategy.
With that in mind, the first step is to narrow down the universe of communities or sites to a manageable number, focusing your attention on the most relevant and influential (unless of course you have a large staff dedicated to this particular marketing discipline). Second, and perhaps most imperative, is setting up detailed rules of engagement. Language and mode of expression are key parts of each online community's culture. This means what you say can be as important as how you say it. It also means that in order to communicate effectively, you have to leave marketing-speak at the door. On the other hand, you don't want to try too hard to fit in and end up losing sight of the reason you're there in the first place.
Also, make sure your legal team is not writing any posts or deciding what's getting written and how. Yes, legal should be involved in crafting and signing off on the policy, but no, legal should not be taking a hands-on role (unless for some reason you're engaging with a legal community). Above all, remember to disclose your identity and that of the company you represent. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) has clear ethical guidelines that should be followed closely when developing your own engagement policy. Put simply, they boil down to the old adage that honesty is the best policy.
Even when following the rules, be prepared to be in it for the long haul. It takes time to build trust and establish rapport when you're the new kid on the block. Also, be prepared to take your lumps. The reality is that some communities will be more receptive to your efforts than others, so you have to stay on top of things daily or according to the activity schedule of each community and make sure you react accordingly and appropriately. No matter how personal it might get, remember that it's just business.
Noah Elkin is vice president of corporate strategy for digital marketing company iCrossing, and writes for Great Finds, the iCrossing blog. Read full bio.