Scaling social media in ten steps.

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In a hurry? The ten steps for scaling social media are in list-format at the bottom of this post.

One of the common laments of companies trying to leverage social media is that it can take a lot of time and resources. If you or your employees are on Twitter and Facebook all day then who’s getting the work done? Common wisdom says that “social media doesn’t scale” or that “engagement doesn’t scale.”

“Doesn’t scale” is true if all of your engagement is one-to-one in real-time and you can’t hire on more people. Absolutely true. But the truth is that many customers will realize that your company is made up of humans and understand that you can’t be one-to-one in real-time all the time. They might not want to realize it if something is going dreadfully wrong. But that’s a special case for another article. This post is about scaling social media in a sane and responsible manner.

There are three areas where scaling is going to cause the hurt: decision-making, receiving information from customers (inputs) and expending effort on behalf of customers (outputs). Let’s tackle them in order of hurtitude.

Decision-making for social media

Social media conversations tend to move very very quickly. What was very new in the morning could be old hat by mid-afternoon. Being forced to make decisions rapidly can cause paralysis in some organizations.

In order to minimize the pain of having to make spot-decisions all the time try setting out a general principles. This is not the same as making 10,000 contingency plans. Setting out your general principles means being clear with everyone in the organization about these two things:

  1. Be clear about who you are and what you’re doing with social media.
  2. Be honest about your commitment to social media or a specific network.

Make it as simple and obvious as possible so that anyone who may be faced with a situation can refer to the principles you come up with and feel confident that they will make the best choice available to them. Ideally, the “what you’re doing with social media” part will resolve into a set of measurable goals and objectives.

Developing clarity about who you are and what you’re doing can take time. But taking this time is worth it because then other actions will flow much more smoothly. Being honest about your commitment to social media or a specific network means that you know whether you’re going have a token profile or whether you’re really going to work a particular network: and you’re ok with it.

Once your organization has come up with the answers for these two questions, then you will save a lot of time and meetings and general conversation about social media. Someone will say “We should really have a Blahblah Page on Blitzo Network.” Then you can say “You’re right, having a Blahblah page will relate directly to what we’re doing online with social media. Let’s test it.”

Revisit your purpose and your commitments as you gain experience in the medium.

Using social media to receive information from customers: managing inputs

Social media opens a floodgate of data and information from you customers. Managing this can absorb massive amounts of time. Monitoring Twitter all day, and Facebook and then some reputation management and Google Alerts… it doesn’t end.

The thing is, though, that you don’t have to watch all of the information. And you don’t have to watch all of it all of the time. Your purpose and commitment will suggest how frequently you need to be engaged in social media. If they don’t, then you may have made unrealistic decisions about your social media involvement—revisit and be more honest this time.

Here are some specific strategies to pare-back the amount of information you are trying to absorb via social media without sacrificing online goals and objectives.

Identify social media and networks which are most beneficial to your business.

Use your web analytics traffic reports to identify which sites are currently sending you traffic—and which sites are sending you the best quality traffic. Those are the ones where you already have some sort of traction, let these be your core areas of listening.

Go ahead and explore others, but consider non-performing networks to be experimental and don’t be shy about pruning back your involvement with them. If your Twitter traffic is junk, then don’t be shy about scaling back your commitment to Twitter. Same for Facebook or any other social media network.

Identify social media and networks where you have influence.

If you are currently involved in social media, identify the networks where you have the greatest influence. When you share something, does the audience respond? You can track this for links to your own site via campaign-tagging, but for other links to sites you don’t own, link shorteners like Bit.ly will help you out.

If you no one is being influenced by your messaging, then review your commitment to the network or social media site and determine whether you can just have a token profile there or whether you’ll want to step up your game. Be brutally honest. If you don’t have it in you to get better at it, then there’s no shame in backing off. Better to focus efforts where you already have influence.

Hold on… doesn’t all that analytics stuff add more work?

No. Here’s why. Remember back in the day when people did traditional advertising and the joke was always “50% of my advertising budget is wasted, I just don’t know which half.” Well, using analytics you get to find out which half.

If you spend more time generating reports than the time you save on sending out links and messages that no one hears or no one cares about, then it’s true. You’ve added time. But you’re not going to do that because it’s tremendously easy to configure and read those reports and see what’s working.

If you don’t read the reports, it’s tremendously easy to spend months coming up with catchy link titles to give to an audience that is non-existent or apathetic.

Sending links and ideas to nobody is a bigger waste of time than reading the reports.

A non-web analytics way to lighten your social networking load:

Ask your current best customers what social networks they’re on. Also ask them which ones they think would be a good place to find you and your messages. Chances are good they’ll tell you. This doesn’t involve any scary ol’ web analytics and does involve some data: customer recommendations. This is also a great way to get started even if you are going to use web analytics to help improve your messaging later.

Simplify your inbox.

This is getting more into the personal time-management stuff, but it matters once you open yourself up to taking messages in a variety of formats. Simplifying your inbox means that trying to get the number of places where you check for activity down to one. Probably won’t be able to get to one, but at least try. Here are some ideas:

  • Invest time up front making a hand-rolled solution with RSS and Yahoo Pipes.
  • Invest money in a solution like Radian6.
  • Route all of your social media and networking alerts and communications to a single email address that is reserved for social media stuff.

Once you’ve got the inboxes whittled down to as few as you can, then re-examine your purpose and commitment to social media and come up with the frequency you will check that inbox. Yes I know that Twitter is a real-time environment. But it’s still ok to check the messages when you have time to respond to them.

If you let more than a day go in between questions and responses, remind your audience what you are responding to (they may have forgotten they even asked a question—which should give you an idea as to how important the question was).

Managing social media inputs:

Here it is in a bullet list:

  • Eliminate active commitment to non-performing social media networks—scale back to just a profile.
  • Eliminate active commitment to social media networks where you lack influence—scale back to just a profile.
  • Ask your best customers where they think you would do well, start there.
  • Whittle down your inboxes to as few as you can handle. Only check them according to when you can devote time to respond.

Expending effort on behalf of customers: managing social media outputs

If you’ve effectively whittled down your major social media commitments using the techniques above, then you’re halfway to making your existing social media work more efficiently. If you have a clear purpose and commitment and have identified the networks that are most likely to resonate, you’re ready to begin getting social.

Tag Team: Multi-user social media

If you have more than one person who can work on social media goals and objectives, share the load. Use technology like CoTweet and a company account to focus customer responses. That way, while one person is getting non-social-media work done, the other can work the social media.

Go ahead and be frank and honest with your audience that you have multiple people working the account. Also, take good notes on interactions so that anyone from your company can be helpful. That’s just usual CRM stuff.

Shift time

Sure social media is all real-time and all. But not everything you have to share needs to be shared exactly at that moment. Just as you might bank a blog post to publish while you’re on vacation, feel free to pre-publish Twitter posts that aren’t time-sensitive. This helps keep you active in the channel without you needing to actually be there all the time.

Yes, people will respond and you won’t be there right away. But you can respond to them the next time you are active. Shifting time has the added benefit of helping you discover the best time to be online for various markets, industries and topics. Use this for data gathering about influence and activity.

Schedule active use of social media

Go ahead and schedule dedicated time to be using social networks. Setting up a block of time to work a particular network puts you back in charge of your time. You no longer have to respond to everything right now in real-time. You can choose to push non-urgent business off until your next regularly scheduled block of time.

If you are using the time-shifting technique above and also using the tracking recommended in the “Managing social media inputs” section, then you can use that information to find out when is the best time to schedule your social media time in terms of being able to wield the most influence in relation to your online goals. Pretty clever, eh?

Scaling social media: in a nutshell.

So here’s how it all works, for the list-inclined:

  1. Determine why you’re using social media (this will take time but better to do this before you blow hours making your Facebook page, right?)
  2. Determine your level of acceptable commitment to each channel you’re in.
  3. Measure which social media sites and networks naturally send you traffic.
  4. Measure which social media sites and networks resonate most with your messages.
  5. Ruthlessly prune back to just a profile presence on sites which don’t pass the previous two steps.
  6. Set up a single inbox for all social media activity.
  7. Tag-team social media responses (requires good internal notes but you are already doing this for CRM).
  8. Time-shift posts whenever possible.
  9. Schedule your active social media time so you remain in control of your time.
  10. Laugh at the suckers who have to check Twitter every 3 minutes.
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