BY EMMA HALL
Four panel members from very different social media backgrounds, ranging from one whose company blocks social media unless approved by management to one who counsels businesses on avoiding lawsuits stemming from social media, came together to discuss how social media is rapidly changing the business world.
The Software Association of Oregon held an event Thursday titled "Social Networking in the Corporate World: Managing Risks and Opportunities" that was targeted to CIOs. Held at NW Natural, it not only addressed how to use social media to grow your business, but also what pitfalls to avoid.
The panel was moderated by Jim Robison of EasyStreet. The four panel members were Kent Lewis, president of Anvil Media, Dave Weber, CIO of NW Natural, Bryan Rhodes, senior digital strategist at Intel and Ted Karr, partner at Berkeley Law & Technology Group. The panel discussed the ways that social media can both help and hinder businesses. Most businesses are now aware that they can use Twitter or Facebook as marketing tools, but might still be unaware that social media has a myriad of other uses.
The first question the panel addressed was why a company should use social media.
"Marketing isn't the No. 1 reason to be on social media, [it's] because it provides you the world's largest focus group," said Lewis. If you are considering using social media for your company, you should first consider why you want to do it. Look at your competitors' use of social media and see what they are doing. An example given of a company with a great social media presence is Comcast, with their Comcast Cares program. They put their best tech support people on Twitter to answer customers questions or concerns.
Twitter: A main reason for using Twitter is to provide customer service. "Every company should have evangelists representing your company on Twitter," said Lewis. Twitter gives your company the opportunity to say "we're here, we're responsive, we're not just this monolithic brand," said Rhodes. Also, in customer service response time is everything. Twitter allows you to give instantaneous support. In this way, you can turn customer service into marketing. (Hint: Use programs like Google alerts, Social Mention, or TweetBeep to track mentions of your company on Twitter and respond to them.)
LinkedIn: LinkedIn is the best online tool for business to business marketing, which goes further than just putting your resume online and "connecting" with coworkers. You can answer questions on the Answers message boards to become the leader in a topic. That way, when someone looks at a specific topic (for example corporate law or business development) they see that you are a leader in that area, and then they have the opportunity to contact you for work relating to that topic.
Another way to use LinkedIn is by joining invite-only Groups to connect with others in your field. Lewis gave the example that he is a member of a Portland tech community group. A third way to use LinkedIn is by looking into its very targeted DirectAds, which can target an audience in a specific location and field.
YouTube: YouTube is a great way to provide how-to videos to your customers. You can post a video on anything from how to defragment your hard drive to how to install your company's software.
Blogs: A company's website might not be updated very often, except for the occasional press release. This is where a more personal company blog comes in. A blog allows you to engage the customer by showcasing trends, ideas, tools, links to other companies, embedding videos, or even embedding your Twitter feed. Plus, Google loves blog posts, so its a great way to get your company higher in search results.
Since "technology is changing faster than the law," said Karr, companies are struggling with companywide policies to deal with social media. It is even a new trend for insurance companies to take into account a company's social media guidelines when determining insurance rates. A business's guidelines might restrict use of streaming audio and video because it brings down the office's bandwidth, or ban social media if they perceive it as a distraction for employees.
Karr outlined potential legal problems that companies could come across. For example, the earlier mention of LinkedIn private groups calls into question whether you want to put your company's confidential information on LinkedIn's site rather than an internal site.
If an employee gets sued for defaming a customer or rival company on their personal blog, the company can also be sued. Or an employee could write a bad review of a business and both the employee and company could be liable.
And potential employers could search your personal Facebook page and find something that might keep them from hiring you. For employers putting this into practice though, if you learn of a potential employee's pregnancy, age, handicap or something else that then keeps you from hiring them, that is also illegal.
In all, social media is a powerful tool to help your company, but be smart about the risks.
Emma Hall is web editor for Oregon Business.