Social networking sites: 10 mistakes organizations make

By Steven Overly
Monday, June 28, 2010; 6

Millions of people log onto social media Web sites daily, prompting such varied organizations as Gaithersburg-based MedImmune, the American Red Cross and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to follow.

But simply creating an account on Facebook or Twitter rarely equates to being plugged in. Area consultants said many organizations spend ample time and resources on social media without seeing much return. Here are 10 common mistakes that they see businesses, nonprofits and government agencies make.

Doing too much at once

For businesses and organizations with small staffs and smaller budgets, it's often best to start with a small social media presence, too. Steve Ressler, creator of GovLoop, a social network for government workers, said some organizations try to be on every network at once and fall short in the process. Ressler recommends organizations first identify the tools that best reach their intended audience, be it customers, colleagues or constituents, and use them well.

Not knowing your needs

Social media can serve as a networking tool and marketing platform, but not every organization needs both, said Larissa Fair, the senior online marketing manager at ScienceLogic and president of Social Media Club DC. While a restaurant may aim to attract new clientele, a government contractor may need to connect with key government allies.

Giving it to the intern

Too often, social media responsibilities will be piled on the most inexperienced staff members, or worse, someone who abhors social media. Debbie Weil, a local corporate social media consultant, said proper use of social media requires someone who is not only communication savvy, but comfortable with exposure to the public. You can't hide behind a brand, Weil said. Social media needs a personal touch.

Thinking everyone cares about the name

Many government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency or HUD, have Facebook fan pages. But who is actually a "fan" of the EPA as an agency? That was the question Mark Drapeau, the director of innovative social engagement for Microsoft's U.S. Public Sector, put to a room of government social media enthusiasts two weeks ago. People care about issues, he said. Pages related to issues like water conservation or carbon emissions might help an organization like the EPA better reach interested constituents and promote its mission, Drapeau suggested.

Only using the freebies

Free social network and media Web sites such as Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube may be easy to activate, but they don't give an organization much control. Weil, who also authored "The Corporate Blogging Book," warns that companies that rely solely on external networks relinquish a certain degree of autonomy. She recommends that organizations and companies using social media have a hub on their primary Web site where users can find links or feeds to blogs, Flickr photo galleries and other third-party Web sites. This also gives customers or constituents a single go-to URL.

Making conversations one-way

As chair of the Northern Virginia Technology Council's social media committee, Evan Weisel sees the gamut of social media use. The Welz & Weisel Communications co-founder said too many companies see these tools as just another way to push out information. Bombarding people with advertisements or press releases won't earn many followers, he said; there has to be a dialogue that keeps the audience engaged.

Summoning your defense

The Internet can become a battleground if organizations don't handle social media with care, Fair cautioned. Companies and political organizations have to understand that criticism is likely to come in the form of tweets and comments, but an organization cannot become abrasive or defensive, she said. Even a mere 140 characters, the length of a tweet, can have the makings of a public relations blunder.

Missing out on event follow-up Fair said many companies or organizations will bring people together for a large event or conference, but fail to capture that audience for the long-term. She said Facebook or another social networking tool can give organizers the opportunity to engage with that crowd regularly, even after the festivities come to a close.

Making it about money, money, money

Most nonprofits and other donation-driven organizations recognize the potential to raise funds through social media, but Fair said it is too often viewed as a funnel to the organization's coffers. She said nonprofits stand to collect more money from a community that participates, through social media or otherwise, in an organization's cause. You can't initiate social media as part of a fundraising effort, she said; it has to happen beforehand.

So, now what? Even if your company is firing off tweets every hour and constantly tending to its Facebook page, how do you know if it's working? Dean Hua, owner of Bethesda-based Web consultant Sachi Studio, said an organization looking to use social media should first decide how measure whether its efforts are successful. That could be the number of hits on the company's Web site, donations to a nonprofit's campaign or many other metrics.

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