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Integrating Social Media into a Web Content Strategy

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In: Articles

By Britt Parrott

Published on June 24, 2008

Whether you’re an employee or a consultant, it sometimes falls to you to drag an organization into the 21st century—and that often means convincing a company to adopt social media. Someone might even be asking you about some new web tool their son or daughter is using.

Outside of the tech industry, skepticism and fear are the norm when it comes to social media. But it is simply about finding the best way to communicate with an audience. Social media consists of the same content already in use: text, audio, images, and video. The difference lies in its ability to open up new channels of communication.

Rather than getting bogging down in discussions about the uses of Twitter, Flickr, StumbleUpon et al, start by explaining social media with a simple analogy. Most individuals or organizations have an office or home base, their offline equivalent of their website. Ask them if they make all their customers, partners, and employees call or visit their home office in order to communicate. The answer will likely be no—they go out into the world to communicate; to conferences, meetings, events, and so on. That is the equivalent of social media—using social media means going where people are in order to connect and communicate.

Social media is a vital part of online communication

Instead of starting the social media discussion on the tools, focus on the communication needs of your client or company first.

Any individual or organization that sells products or offers services should value open communication as a goal. If your client or company does not have an existing communications plan, or even a mission statement that includes nods to openness or transparency, a social media strategy might be a good starting point for developing one. (If open communication is not a value of the organization, social media could still be an important part of monitoring the online world, but that is a topic for a separate article.)

Make it clear that social media is not about technology, nor about keeping up with the latest trend. The primary goal of using social media has to be communication, not technology and not viral marketing. A company has phones because it wants employees to be able to talk to other people, not because it wants to be at the “cutting edge of voice-activated, enterprise digital communication systems”—and not because it wants to call everyone in the phone book with a sales pitch! If the main goal for using social media is to be at the cutting edge of technology, or if your client’s eyes light up when they realize they can use social media to send a mass message to followers, it will fail. Social media is part of a long-term communication strategy to build relationships.

To provide concrete examples, I’ll be using a fictitious client named Metro Landscaping. Metro Landscaping is a large, regional landscaping company that focuses on using low-impact methods in its work. In addition to being more environmentally friendly, their methods are also much quieter. Their overall goals for the redesign of their website are to better highlight their low-impact landscaping methods, and to improve interaction with customers and interested parties.

Getting started: socializing the isolated content

The best way to start integrating social media within existing web content is to audit the existing uses of text, audio, images, and video. Focus on the pages that are updated often or that would benefit from feedback or two-way interaction. But don’t limit your audit to just the website. Find out where the conversations are taking place. Talk to people who give presentations or who answer the phones. Note as much as you can about the social aspects of your client’s communications, and think about ways that social media could help continue those conversations and capture knowledge.

Once you’ve gathered your audit of text, audio, images, and video, determine what the objectives are for each of those uses. Again, keep it simple. A sentence or two should suffice for each case. See the example content audit for Metro Landscaping (PDF, 108KB). Or download a blank content audit (PDF, 105KB) for your own use.

Once you’ve captured the objective for each use, it’s time to take a realistic look at how well the current tools are meeting those objectives. Refer back to your notes on existing conversations and determine the benefit from retaining the information. It’s important to remind your client or company that they can’t control or monitor all the conversations about them, but social media helps capture some of it so that appropriate responses can be crafted.

Keep your focus on the overall communication goals of existing content. Make sure that each top-level page offers specific value and is tied to a real communication goal. For example, before accepting the almost default top-level ‘About Us’ section, determine the goal first. Many sites use their ‘About Us’ section as a container for leftover bits and pieces of content about the organization that do not address a specific goal. A specific communication goal for an ‘About Us’ section for Metro Landscaping might be: “To show our audience why we are passionate about low-impact landscaping methods”; not “To provide our audience with information about our company”.

Doing the Work: Tools, Mules, and Rules

Now that you’ve researched the objectives and tactics of the existing content, expand your options to include the types of social media tools that might better meet the goals for each type of content. Don’t start a list of Web 2.0 all-stars; just list the broad category of tools that would better serve your client’s or company’s needs. For example, if using photos to show examples of a client’s work is the objective of the photo gallery on the website, add a photo-sharing site as a tool that might better meet that goal because of easier updating, broader exposure, and customer feedback.

It is important to define your selection process and not rely solely upon the tools with which you are most familiar. You also want to document your reasons for choosing a specific tool, in case of any changes to that tool down the road. You might already know what tools would work best, but for the benefit of a client or company not familiar with the social media landscape, you should document your choices. It will make you sound even better, having gone through this task to be able to finally say, “Based on my research, I think Flickr would be the best choice for your photo-sharing tool, because it offers a free version and has a large and involved community of users.”

Once you’ve selected your tools, someone will have to be responsible for managing them. While social media tools are easier to learn than most office phone systems, you will need to determine how social media will fit into the current workload of your client or company.

Anyone who is comfortable answering phones or sending email in a professional manner should have no problem using social media. Used properly, it can help lessen the workload of phone calls and email. While incorporating social media does require a behavioral change and initial learning curve, it’s a process of using communication time more efficiently. Don’t let time become a factor against using social media. Organizations need to communicate. You’re helping them manage that time better.

The reward of using social media carries more weight than most people realize. Highlight the reward not only in terms of better communication, but also in the interactive, and even fun, aspect. Emphasize the social. A tool like Twitter is really no different than the outgoing message on your phone that tells people what you’re doing in case you aren’t answering. “I’m in a meeting this afternoon.” Twitter or outgoing phone message? It should be both.

Find out who is producing content that could benefit from the use of social media. Take an employee who gives a PowerPoint presentation at a conference. They slave away creating the presentation, show it at the appointed time, and collect some business cards after it’s over. Show the benefit of using social media. A blog or micro-blog could help gather information and build an audience prior to the presentation, while allowing for an expanded conversation after it is over. An account on a presentation-sharing site ensures that the presentation will be available right away.

Finally, don’t ignore the need for simple and clear rules. Rules for online communication are no different than rules for all other forms of professional communication. Trust is a major factor in social media. If no one in the organization is currently trusted to speak freely on the phone, at meetings, or at conferences, then they won’t be trusted to use social media. Remember, social media actually helps capture conversations so that it is easier to monitor what is being said about the organization, good or bad.

Finally, be consistent with current media and identity. Too often, I’ve seen companies rush into blogging by creating a blog on a free service instead of integrating it into their existing site. It’s not a good long-term strategic use of social media. Social media should not be a last-minute add-on to a website—it should be one of the primary structural components.

As always, keep it simple

Incorporating social media into your client or company’s existing content strategy does not have to be a painful process. It’s a simple way to tackle three problems at once: Shifting conversations to a different medium; allowing for easier updating of content; and reaching a wider audience. Don’t tell people about the latest micro-blogging, content-aggregation widget. Instead, show them how they could be communicating more efficiently and how it ties into their existing content. Social media can drive static web content to new destinations, as long as you provide the roadmap.

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Related Topics: Technology, Planning, Interaction Design, Content, Community

 

Britt is a social media and web content strategist who dabbles in screenwriting when time allows. After producing his own short film last year, he decided to stick with the writing part. He previously was the Editor-in-Chief of Digital Web and the Managing Editor of Transworld Skateboarding Magazine, but not at the same time.

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