“When I’m tweeting, I’m working”

by Matt Burgess on March 16, 2010

There’s an important issue that any organisation needs to take into account when entering into social media, and that’s the effect engaging in social media will have on their employees. It’s dangerous. Why would I say something like that, especially in light of the fact that I offer social media marketing services? Well, I have a reason.

Let’s dive in.

A bit of background…

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: before you start talking to people on social media channels, you first of all need to listen. Listen, listen, listen. There’s a variety of reasons behind this:

  • You need to listen to find out where the conversations are taking place that are relevant to you and your brand. After all, there’s no point jumping into a conversation that isn’t relevant to you, is there?
  • You need to listen to get the lay of the land. Now, generally all you really need to bear in mind is “don’t be an idiot”, but it’s hard to deny that different social media channels and networks have their own etiquette… so you’re better off learning the unspoken rules before blundering in and breaking them.
  • You need to listen to what your customers are talking about. What needs do they have that you can fulfill?

Your employees are going to have to spend time doing this, if you want them to be effective communicators for your brand on social media channels. And this process takes a while. Are you aware of that? Make sure you go into this process knowing that, or it could lead to tension between you and your employee.

And it gets worse…

Once you’re ready to join in the conversations, your employee is going to be interacting with people online. A lot. Because social media is not a one-way street. Once you begin to talk, people will expect you to listen. And part of that listening means letting people know that you hear them. This means that, in most cases (I say most, because there most certainly are the exceptions), but in most cases… it’s not enough to simply push out your marketing messages. You need to take part. This means responding to other people’s interests. It means showing that you’re not only interested in yourself.

And yes. This means that not every interaction your employee will have online during work hours will look – on the surface – to be directly affecting your brand. The problem here is that everything your employee does online will eventually affect the brand. That conversation he just had with that guy online that wasn’t overtly work-related? Yeah, that guy will remember his name. And who he works for. And he’ll make that connection. Not all the time, sure. But it happens.

And this is where things get murky…

… because now we’re entering the realm of personal brands within employees. And it is one tricky, tricky line. The fact is that any company’s strength is its employees. But in the world of social media, that’s taken on a whole new meaning. A company that empowers its employees to build up their personal brands online will always be able to trade off that, and use it to their advantage. As an example of this, when Scott Monty joined Ford as their head of social media, he not only brought with him his insights, but also his personal brand, which he leveraged to Ford’s gain. In his post looking back at his first year at Ford, Scott wrote: “I went so far as to leverage my own personal brand – not because it was convenient, but because I believed so firmly in the direction of the company, and because that’s the network I had build up before I came to Ford. It seemed natural to extend it.”
But yes, this comes with risks, namely:

  • What happens if the employee leaves? We’ve just paid them to build up their own personal brand on our time!
  • We’re paying them to sit online and talk!

And both of those are valid concerns.

Which is why it’s a dangerous line to walk…

… because, ultimately, it needs to come down to trust. An employer should not charge its employee with the task of engaging in social media on the brand’s behalf unless there is an enormous amount of trust.
Because – if it’s a good employee – when they’re helping someone out online with a question, even if it’s not directly related to your brand… they’re working.
When an employee is building connections and networking with people online, they’re working.
Heck, even when they’re tweeting, they’re working.

Why? Because they’re building connections. They’re creating personal relationships. And these relationships can be leveraged for your business. For example… if you have a new promotion coming up that you’re hoping to spread through social channels: you’re going to have a head start if you can leverage your employee’s social capital. It sounds underhanded, but it’s not. When you employ someone, you’re employing their network. And, if you’re doing things right, that employee should be happy to meld their personal and professional networks. Again, looking back on the Scott Monty reference before, he was happy to leverage his personal brand because he “believed so firmly in the direction of the company”.

But it can’t work without trust. So make sure that you’ve built that up within your company culture before you even think of tasking employees with social media work. Because if you’ve hired good people, and if your employee loves their job and believes in the company, everything they do online will help your business. If you haven’t and they don’t, then they’ll just be using your trust to spend their time on social networks.

And without trust, you’d never know the difference.

So create a culture of trust before asking your employees to enter into social media on the brand’s behalf. It’ll save a lot of heartache and tension later on.

Image credit: chego101

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