By Keith Patrick, Senior Lecturer at Westminster Business School

It doesn’t seem that long ago that a web presence was deemed a necessity for an organisation, with or without a transaction capability. Now we are faced with the question ‘should our organisation be ‘doing’ Social Media?’

Social Media is a space already being occupied by customers - current and prospective - whether an organisation chooses to be in the same space or not. The question that remains is how should this space be approached?

Firstly, as customers are already using social media, they are likely to be commenting about businesses, products and/or services, so organisational reputation is already being built or eroded.

Secondly, an organisation's social media space is not the same as a personal space. The costs and implications for maintenance and purpose need significant consideration.

Thirdly, why should the business go there and what does it need to do when it gets there?

Social media should be viewed as complementary to existing channels, a layer, and part of an online presence seeking to drive custom toward transactions.

Providing information, not just technical specification on products and services, but reviews, testimonials, and user feedback, is more likely to convince a prospective customer than the marketing speak on the website or brochure.

A famous positive example of engagement can be seen in the cross-social networking site petition targeting Cadburys which led to the return of the ‘Wispa’ bar. A more negative social media campaign was launched through Facebook against HSBC which led the bank to retract a proposal to charge interest on graduate overdrafts.

One simple starting point for business is setting up a Facebook fan page, but it is essential to identify the key businesses objective. This could be to seek customer engagement, to increase brand awareness, to carry out market research, to increase your marketing contacts (for example creating an email list of potential and existing customers). The business leaders also need to decide if the Facebook page will be used as a vehicle to drive custom to a website.

Social media is primarily a publishing environment, not a direct selling environment but it can influence purchasing behaviour. A Facebook page is a place to build connections and create fans who, in turn, can be converted into customers and advocates.

The page will need a regular input of content — and content with context and meaning to attract and retain fans. This content could be a mixture of articles, presentations, video, audio, blogs etc. It is important to consider how and who will be posting this content, how regularly, and whether there is a role for the use of syndicated content from third parties. An additional element in maintaining content is enabling customer 'fans' to add their own content, photos of a product in use, or perhaps a product or service review. Remember, engagement is about interaction, not just pushing out a message.

It is increasingly possible to cross-post messages to a range of social streams like Facebook, Twitter, and Blogs with a single post. Whilst this may make posting easier and more efficient, some separation of social streams may be useful to monitor and measure the success of any offers or discounts promoted across different channels to evaluate the range and effectiveness of each stream.

It is also essential across all social media activity to identify and monitor conversations about the organisation or its products. A business needs to continually assess and measure its online progress, measuring the reaction to specific content additions, events, or promotions, the growth in fans, any increased traffic, any new sources, which posts attract the most fans or 'likes', participation in polls and any click-throughs to a transaction site.

For example, a BT experiment to engage with customers saw them enter several social media spaces where customers were already voicing their dissatisfaction. This led BT to post ‘how-to’ videos on YouTube, demonstrating actions previously described by their call centre. This then became a place for comments and complaints to be posted.

The discount chain Poundland adopted Facebook to launch a campaign to drive business to their website by providing information on their ever-changing product line. Previously the only way to know what was in stock was to visit a store but following the initiative Poundland reported CDs and videos selling out within a day of entering the shop, a speed not seen previously. Poundland fans were also part of other Facebook groups for particular forms of music or bands, films or actors, who pass on the ‘news’ and hence helped increase sales.

You can’t reach all groups directly but your fan is also someone else’s fan and information is shared quickly and at little cost among social media users through the networks they belong to and represent. So plan but adapt and, importantly, respond. Your fans or customers are actually your best defence to negative comments you may receive whether, you engage or not with social media.

To sum up, if your business wanted to build a presence in social media, you need to look at the following four aspects:

Objectives — what’s your purpose?
Content - to engage, attract, create loyalty.
Monitor - activity levels, (fans, likes, posts, etc).
Measure - what is the impact? (activity levels, click through to company website, impact of events, discounts, or promotions, sales/leads as a result of social media.

Finally, it is important to plan your businesses venture into social media but expect the unexpected. Social media is user-driven in nature and evolves in a different way to conventional software. Additional features and new platforms and sites will appear, and others disappear, and you need to keep up with the pace of change.