By Howard Robinson, Director, Quay West

A decade ago, most businesses were launching their first websites. Now, many more are taking their tentative first steps in social media. Just as you still see some truly awful websites, it’s quite clear that some people haven’t yet understood social media.

The first thing to remember about social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn is that they’re public, not private. People have come unstuck for using Twitter in particular as if it were email, and for including far too much personal information in their tweets. There are also dangers in Facebook — ask yourself, do you really want to be Facebook friends with your colleagues or your boss if you use Facebook to complain about work?

The golden rule with social media is to separate the corporate from the personal. In a business context, the two types of social media you are most likely to use are LinkedIn, which is essentially an online networking forum, and Twitter, which although it only allows 140 characters per tweet, is useful for repeating your key marketing messages. The key is to be interested and to be interesting.

Twitter provides some great opportunities to promote and to interact, but you must decide from the outset whether it is a company Twitter or a personal one. If in doubt set up both. Keep the details of your personal life for the personal Twitter and use the company one to promote special offers, announce product launches, offer new literature or samples, give hints and tips, comment on topical issues that affect your potential customers and communicate core values. Above all, use Twitter to direct people to your company website. With Twitter you can search for potential followers based on geography or key words which are likely to be in their profiles. You can even see how many followers they have and when they last tweeted, which will give you an idea of how active they are. Twitter is a reciprocal platform and approximately a third of those who you follow will follow you back.

If you’re smart, you’ll feed your Twitter onto your LinkedIn page so that it automatically updates regularly, but again choose — do you want your personal or your company Twitter to appear on your profile?

On LinkedIn you can take initiatives such as starting a group to attract followers with a specific interest — great for targeting specific markets, but make sure it’s a genuinely useful or interesting discussion. Don’t just expect your group to grow, you need to invite people to join it, and that means spending time tracking down potential group members. Again, use the information you post on LinkedIn to direct traffic to your website.

Use social media to align yourself with topical news and authoritative opinion — be judged by the company you keep. Does Government policy affect your business? Or building regulations? Is there some new research or a breaking news story that would interest or affect your customers? Tweet about it and include a link to the government website or any other source that’s relevant. Providing genuinely useful information shows you in a good light.

One newer social media site is Quora, a user-generated collection of questions and answers. One Quora member asks a question, which others then debate online until a kind of industry consensus is reached. At the moment Quora is in its early days, but it’s growing fast, becoming a repository of information which will form the basis of useful research in the near future as a straw poll or litmus test of opinion.

What about using Facebook as a company? You certainly can, if you’re in the right business. More people log onto Facebook in the evening than will ever log onto any one company website. Consumers will look for your products in their leisure time, but they will probably only do so if and when they have an active need for the type pf products or services that you offer. On Facebook you can reach them in a different way, using campaigns or promotions that they can like or sign up to. If your target market is the youth sector, it would be a mistake not to consider Facebook as part of your marketing, and its use has also spread across most other age groups too. Again, Facebook should be a window on your special promotion but should direct users back to your website to increase its traffic.

If you do have a personal profile on Facebook, make sure you set your security so that your comments and pictures can’t be seen by everyone. It’s a fact that many bosses now look up prospective employees on the net, particularly Facebook to see what they can fond out. Drunken pictures or inappropriate comments are a great way to get a job offer withdrawn.

You will probably need to make managing your social part of one or more job descriptions — when the regular tweeter is on holiday, the tweets should not stop. If your messages are simple you can probably handle this in house, but if you want to make all the elements work well together you may need to employ an expert to manage it for you. The smart approach to this is usually to outsource it as it isn’t very expensive and it’s often far more effective.