There is no doubt that businesses of all shapes and sizes have been affected by the explosive nature of social media. Customers, partners and employees are leveraging social media in ways that can and will change the way your organization is perceived. 

While this can be a bit alarming, the important thing to remember is to stay calm and to take a rational and clear approach to leveraging social media both inside and outside your organization.

If the growth of social media in business seems to be happening too fast and you’re afraid of being left in the dust, you are not alone. In a recent SugarCRM survey of small and medium-sized business, more than 70 percent of respondents noted they have yet to build an integrated approach to social media and their customer management operations. However, more than 70 percent say they plan to do so in 2011. So while you may not be behind the crowd now, you may be soon.

When crafting a winning social strategy to listen, engage, create advocates and direct conversations toward your value points (I call this a L.E.A.D. strategy), remember a few things. First, don’t forget the importance of traditional CRM; develop a key understanding of where and why your customers are talking about you online; build upon existing platforms – do not create more work than is necessary; and finally, keep the user experience top of mind.

Remember Your Roots

Marketing and sales professionals are being inundated with messaging around social media as if this is a major shift in how the job should be done. The truth is, social media actually brings us back to the fundamentals. As business became more complex and scaled, we looked to automate what was essentially a face-to-face experience: service with a smile, a handshake to seal a deal, calling a customer by name as they entered your business. We created CRM systems to manage en masse what we could not do as individuals in larger sales and marketing models.

Social lets us get back to those original, personal marketing messages. Social media flattens the world and shrinks distances. A few tweets to key customers can do more than any well-crafted email campaign. But the key here is that we are still thinking about relationships, not just doing this because it is cool or expected.

When building social media strategies and campaigns, make sure it builds upon your existing relationships and investment in customer management tools. Do not throw your hard work away just because you are leveraging a new channel. Social media should be additive to your initiatives – it is not a replacement for tried and true techniques.

Location, Location, Location!

It is all too easy for an organization to oversimplify its social outreach and marketing by simply saying two words: Facebook and Twitter. Yes, these two sites are the poster children for social media, but they are not the only places you should be thinking about.

For large B2C organizations, it may be important to build an online community complete with community managers and social marketing professionals. By aggregating consumers in one place (and one managed by your brand), you can create endless feedback loops that drive faster development cycles and more successful products and services, because the real voice of the customer is what pushes the buttons here.

For smaller companies and B2B oriented marketing teams, perhaps more business-focused sites like LinkedIn and Xing are more appropriate. Smaller organizations looking to leverage a community aspect can create a free online community with a tool like Ning.

Before spending resources marketing to potential customers via social channels, do some initial research to ensure that your customers are actually aggregating around these properties. Even the cleverest social campaigns will fall flat if no one is listening.

Build on Existing Platforms

From a technology standpoint, social media seems like a game-changing concept. It doesn’t have to be. Thankfully, you do not need to restructure your sales and marketing technology in order to manage social interactions and campaigns.

Modern Web-based marketing and CRM tools can be easily tweaked to manage social media and social channels. For example, most CRM tools can manage email campaigns that enable the user to track clickthrough rates and analyze the effectiveness of the message. These same tools can easily be configured to do the same with Twitter messages – simply embed the tracker codes to the tweet – and you can build a measurable social marketing campaign in minutes.

A firm could easily build Web services integration from sites like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn to power views in the CRM record. One example would be the ability to see how you might have a connection in LinkedIn to a lead you were just assigned. You might not know the lead personally, but you may have a connection to a co-worker who you could contact to learn more about the lead and if there is real potential for a deal. This eliminates cold calls, but does not require a whole new CRM system to accomplish.

Experience is Everything

When building social tools for internal use or creating interactive social media campaigns for your customers, always keep the user experience in mind. After all, the greatest social tools like Facebook became popular in part because they were intuitive to use.

When building an internal social strategy, ensure that you’re not putting too many limitations on users, but also realize that a lot of social media can lead to a lack of productivity. Ensure that social media is a means to an end, not just adding to a generic cool factor.

Allowing customers to interact with you via social channels is important, but be sure you take into consideration that social is a 24x7 proposition. Customers can complain at any time on Twitter: Will you be there to help them and answer their groans? Be sure to set expectations, and have clear escalation paths internally to deal with customers who make noise via social channels.

By creating a solid, logical approach to leveraging social media in your organization, you can avoid a lot of the pitfalls associated with a knee-jerk reaction to social media. And with a core platform in place, you can ensure that your ability to manage customer engagements will remain intact even if the social landscape goes through transformative changes.

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