Surf's up -
I had a chat a few weeks ago with a friend who was lamenting that her company is falling behind in terms of using social media to bring employees together. "And we're doing even less with customers," she said.
As we talked, I realized her company is doing a bit more than I might have thought. They have an intranet - an internal network that houses company policies, announcements and such. Her boss also sends out a weekly update by e-mail.
Not much, but I suspect it's more than some companies even attempt. Then again, others are pushing themselves into social networking with full force.
The move towards social media isn't just trendy, there's already evidence that some larger companies are using various tools to help cope with shrinking budgets. It may not be that much of a coincidence that the explosion of interest in things like Twitter is happening amid a knockout recession.
The thing is, various tools - internal discussion boards, instant messaging, Facebook groups and, yes, Twitter - all serve various needs, internally and externally.
This week, I read some interesting research compiled by the IABC Research Foundation, which is affiliated with the International Associa-tion of Business Communicators. The research (involving what I assume is a largely U.S. sample) found that blogs lead the pack of social networking tools that companies already have in place, followed by discussion boards, podcasts and internal social networks.
Well, blogs are still influential, but they're hardly new, so I was more interested in a section in the survey that asked managers which tools they expect to be using in the future. Leading the list? Discussion boards and wikis.
Thanks to Wikipedia, the very idea of a wiki (in which many people have editing powers) has become much more acceptable than just a few short years ago. Employers are inherently reluctant to part with control over what information is presented, even to employees. In my own experience, wikis have become really useful - not for corporate policy and that sort of thing, but for helping employees to accumulate and share knowledge. We've used wikis at my shop for everything from always-updated contact directories to step-by-step technical instructions.
By opening up that possibility, we've made some serious productivity gains - without costing anything.
That's an internal tool; what about on the outside, in terms of communicating with the public? Sure, Fortune 500 companies are retooling their customer relations staff to monitor Twitter feeds, but what's a small or even medium-sized company to do?
That's the lament that my friend had a few weeks ago. She and her colleagues feel hard-pressed to keep up with the workload they have now; how, possibly, could they research and decide which tools are the best to use, let alone find the time to monitor them?
I don't envy them, especially since most of the (predominantly large) companies in the IABC survey did not even have social networking policies in place yet. However, if you're in the customer service game, you'd better have an online strategy coming together by now. Even if you can't do real-time customer engagement, consider other steps, including easy online access points, through the corporate website or alternative means, like Facebook.
While anything with the word "interactive" is all the rage, don't underestimate your customers' appetite for being kept in the loop. If you issue statements - product announcements, news releases, circulars, tenders, whatever - consider hooking that up to an RSS feed. You might be surprised how much your customers will appreciate that.
Engaged employees, connected customers ... social networking now is way, way more than about getting back in touch with your old school friends. Today, it's already a key element of doing business. Imagine what tomorrow holds.
John Gushue is a writer in St. John's. Blog: johngushue.typepad.com. Twitter: twitter.com/JohnGushue.