Social media: Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and so on. It looks easy, yet quite a few organisations struggle with many aspects of it – while others turn it into a roaring success.

I wanted to share my experience of customers’ (and other organisations’) key challenges and try to provide some suggestions to overcome the obstacles. (While writing this blog, I asked my Twitter followers to give me feedback on their issues, so this article contains some of their input, too.)

Finding the time

Initially, this is one of the biggest problems. Social media takes time. By definition, all new tasks require time you previously didn’t have. But with social media there is a double-whammy. Not only does it take time, it’s unfamiliar territory. People aren’t always sure what they’re doing and results aren’t instant – so it’s easy to appear a waste of time. My suggestions:

  • Make social networking part of your behaviour; part of your culture; part of your day. It’s not a separate task, like designing a brochure.
  • Make it habit to check social networking sites at specific times. I find it useful when I’m taking a break or having a coffee; this means I’m on social media sites several times a day without it being a chore.

Gaining momentum

I know several organisations who’ve opened a Twitter account, followed Stephen Fry and tweeted twice – then given up. The verdict: “Twitter doesn’t work” or “I don’t understand it.” The reality is that this is giving up before getting to the starting gate and, to stretch the analogy further, before learning the rules of the game. My suggestions:

  • Give it some time – but time where you are actually using it. Don’t overthink what you’re doing in the early days – the most important thing is to get in there and do something.
  • Don’t initially focus on “how I can make money” from Twitter. Just get used to it, learn the ropes, find your way around and look at what other people are doing on Twitter.

Getting followers

There’s little point in using Twitter (and other social networks) unless people are following you. So how does that happen, then? This is a massive topic in itself, so accept that I’m oversimplifying here: start interacting. It’s called social networking for a reason. While some people broadcast, it’s not what most are after – they want a conversation. My suggestions:

  • Converse. Follow people; many will follow you back.
  • Reply to their tweets – they will often reply back and then follow you.
  • Remember (and this will seem counter-intuitive) these peopleare not a target market: they are yoursocial network. They will get rapidly bored if your every tweet is a special offer. Don’t think of them as people to whom you are selling.

Finding your community

It’s clearly pointless (from a business perspective) to have thousands of followers who aren’t interested in what you do. Don’t worry about that – it’s not likely to happen. Would you follow someone in whom you weren’t interested? No – neither will others, typically. But you do want to find your place within a community that can be of value to you. My suggestions:

  • Find and follow experts within your industry, whether they work for competitors or not.
  • Follow your customers, suppliers and even some competitors.
  • Take a look at those people following other people (such as your followers’ followers and the followers of those who you follow) and then follow those who seem most interesting.
  • Look for people who interact and converse.
  • Don’t be too worried about following, or being followed by, those who aren’t of direct interest. We all like to follow the odd celebrity and chat about nothing with someone in the pub. Think social and don’t sweat it.

Converting followers into income

It can be undeniably hard to justify time spent on social networking versus, say, a direct mail campaign. It’s especially hard to justify it to your financial director. But trying to turn followers into milk-bearing cows isn’t the most effective way to profit from your network. It’s OK to promote as part of the mix, but try and not simply become an ‘offers broadcasting engine’. My suggestions:

  • Keep the promotional stuff to a smaller percentage of what you do – more than a quarter of your output is enough noise to put people off.
  • Keep your promotional language friendly.
  • Don’t try to put a dollar value on each of your followers. Securing your community is more important than making a quick buck. (Twitter feedback from @trainingpress: “Q: What’s the ROI of social media? A: Your business still exists in 5 years” – this is a sobering thought. Imagine your business not being on the Internet – devastating. That’s the potential for ignoring the importance of social media. )

Finding your voice

Then there’s the million-dollar question: “what to tweet about”? Does everything have to be about your products and services? What topics should be avoided? I’ve seen organisations go into social media paralysis by putting too many guidelines around ‘what to say’. Remember, as I said before, it’s called social media for a reason. My suggestions:

  • Don’t make guidelines around what you can say, but around what you can’t – and keep those short. (I don’t get involved in unproductive topics – this, for me, involves religion and some radical areas of politics.)
  • Show a human face. Have a laugh. Don’t overthink it.
  • Don’t have a ‘tweet approval process’ or similar. Please. It’s like having someone edit your conversations.

Social media isn’t just marketing

Yes, it can be marketing, but it’s not just marketing. And it’s not the preserve of the marketing team. There’s an equality about social media which, if ignored, will limit your success. My suggestions:

  • Try to find a way for all customer-facing departments to have some involvement.
  • Don’t see social media as simply marketing – or the sole responsibility of the marketing department.

Understanding how to engage

Most marketing mechanisms are broadcast mechanisms. We’re used to pushing out messages via advertisements, leaflets and so on. Social networking is not a tool for cheap broadcasting. It’s two-way. My suggestions:

  • Don’t broadcast, converse.
  • Ask questions and opinions of your followers – then use the answers in your product/service/engagement strategy.
  • Comment on the tweets of others. Converse. Be helpful.

Maximising each of your networks

Although we’ve been talking primarily about Twitter, organisations have to think about multiple social networks – typically Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook (for some) and now Google+. Each of these offers different features, challenges and benefits. Some may not even be relevant to your business. My suggestions:

  • Focus on those networks you can get the most from, or are most relevant to you, and do the best job you can. Don’t try to be everywhere. Trust me, you don’t have the time.
  • Learn how each of these works and how toget the best from each.
  • Make sure you’re using the features of each (for example, do you have a company page on LinkedIn, and pages for each of your services? If not, you’re not maximising the traffic to those pages.)

It’s not all new media – where’s your campaign strategy?

Radio didn’t displace books. Television didn’t displace radio. The Internet didn’t displace television. MP3s didn’t displace CDs (or, amazingly, vinyl, for which there’s still a good market). It’s folly to think that you don’t need to put a strategy around your publicity, even though it may be more informal. It’s equally follyto think that more traditional publicity channels don’t count anymore. My suggestions:

  • Don’t underestimate the power of the press release. Rethink how it’s written and where it goes – today, you can get as much actual value from groups of bloggers, commentators or experts in your market than from mainstream media.
  • Make social media part of a new-world publicity strategy.
  • Rethink who the most effective people are to receive your publicity. Engage with this using social media tools as well as publicity releases.

I’d be interested in problems you’ve faced making social networking work for you. Either respond here, or send me a tweet: @labrow