Corporate Social Media Leaders Share Fears, Tips, Rewards

Corporate social media? If that's not an oxymoron at your company or social enterprise, then social media can be scary, difficult stuff -- requiring a ton of courage and patience to deploy effectively, a panel of corporate social media strategists for Target, PepsiCo, Gap and Facebook said today in New York.

"It's very, very scary," Claire Lyons, PepsiCo's corporate brand program manager, told a packed room of nonprofit and CSR activists attending the last day of the 2010 National Conference on Volunteering and Service. Social media represent "a huge shift in the way companies operate," she said, "because they shift the locus of control of a brand, which was always controlled by brand managers, and blows it up. ... It is changing the whole way that brand architecture is considered."

Lyons, one of the lead architects of the company's Pepsi Refresh campaign, said she finds social media exciting.  But using social media to engage is  "very different. ...We really don't have control" of the conversation, she said. Yet the rewards of engaging employees and stakeholders with social media can make the risks worthwhile, she added.  "This is a total quality management feedback loop par excellence."

Target also had some huge misigivings at first, said Jill Pete, a member of Target's national community relations team. At first, she said, it was very hard to simply "step back, listen and not react to what was being said" on the company's Facebook page. "We were hesitant to step into this realm, especially Facebook, because Facebook's power is dialogue," Pete said. But the risk has paid off.  The company's decision to stay quiet and listen has been "a huge step for us because we'd been seeing some stuff on there that was inaccurate and we really wanted to correct it right away," she said. Turns out, Pete said, the company didn't have to. "All inaccuracies so far -- all of them -- are corrected" by Target's Facebook followers, usually no more than two or three days after an inaccuracy has been asserted, she said. "It's testing our strength as a brand," said Pete. "If you're strong, you listen -- and you learn."

Joshua Rahn, New York Director of Facebook, shared an anecdote of how early Pepsi traffic on Facebook included one comment that simply made the statement: "I hate Pepsi but I love Coke." This triggered a swirl of internal communication, he said -- "the lawyers had a field day" -- but before Pepsi could make a decision about how to handle it, one of the company's Facebook followers quietly posted a short note telling the detractor "that if he didn't like Pepsi, to go to Coke, instead and provided the link." End of story. "Before Facebook and Twitter," Rahn said, "people still bad-mouthed products. They always will. You will never be able to control for that. Never. But now,  you have the opportunity to hear them do so and shape those opinions."

In other highlights, panelists agreed that companies and organizations should:

* Get clear on "who owns social media" inside the organization. "Don't make the person who owns social media a second-class citizen," said Facebook's Rahn. "Your social media person shouldn't be a person who sits in on every third meeting and has no authority and no independent power. This should be a person who has a voice. Where should the person sit? In your marketing team but they have to be able to make decisions." Rahn cited Starbucks as a good example of a company that "gets it" about social media's internal role, putting its social media team in marketing but giving it autonomy "and the same amount of say as its TV team."

* Consider setting up a private, branded employee social network. Abby Frost, manager of employee engagement and community partnerships at Gap, said Gap has launched Sketchbook . On that social network, she said, employees share the highs and lows of the workplace experience, share team projects and communicate socially. Recently, Frost organized an "Ultimate Happy Hour" on Sketchbook, which consisted of a video contest among employees to celebrate the company's 48th anniversary last year. She said prizes were given out to the best employee stories and participation on the network remains high. So do employee retention rates. Said Facebook's Rahn: "As much as companies think of using social media to raise awareness, they also need to be thinking of creating engagement around it."

* Remember that  ROI rules. But don't look for magic. Facebook's Rahn said that far too many companies, in their efforts to create a social media strategy, waste too much time trying to get something ready for release. "These are companies that need to consider their 'return on energy' instead," Rahn said. Gap's Frost agreed.  "You need to move fast, not perfect," she said.

* Be clear that social media are a must for employee retention. If companies have hired you to craft their social media strategy but won't let you use the tools on the job, then you need to speak up -- or go somewhere else, Rahn said. Target's Pete  said Millennials expect to be able to use social media on the job. "If you encourage your employees to engage online, they will engage in your favor; if employees see how you're connecting online and see how effective it is, they will become your biggest ambassadors," she said. "But if you don't let them engage, you may lose them." Rahn called it "social retention."

Erik Darby, vice president of business development for The Experience Project, which just launched TwitCause -- a new offering that helps companies engage Twitter users in their pet causes -- offered attendees "5 Things Your Corporation Needs to Know About Social Media." Here they are, briefly:

1. Know why you're going into social media. "Just going for fans on Facebook and followers on Twitter is not going to cut it," Darby says.

2. Know what  ROI  metrics you're measuring.

3. Be consistent with your social media engagement. "Don't expect to see results if you send out a tweet once a week," he says.

4. Be human. "Don't exploit your audience; care about them. Ask their input on things."

5. Go where your audience is. "Build it and they will come isn't true anymore," Darby says. "If you're a pet company, for example, don't just do Facebook. Go where your customers are. Go on Dogster."

Okay corporate and nonprofit social media types. It's your turn. Got any pointers to add?