At Ars Technica we've done a number of social media campaigns in the past, and we've learned quite a bit about what it takes to make these efforts successful. All such campaigns are run on our forums, where they provide advertisers with a high level of engagement and they give forum users a chance to interact directly with brands to provide feedback, ask questions, and gain greater insight into more than just the specifics of a product. Participants in social media campaigns can actually learn about the "whys" behind a product or product line, instead of having the "whats" marketed at them.
In many ways, social media campaigns are an even better fit for SMBs than they are for larger companies. Take a look at our list below of five things you should remember before jumping on the social media bandwagon, and try to imagine the relative difficulty of a large corporation doing these vs. an SMB. Though it's by no means impossible for a Fortune 500 company to do all of these things, small and medium businesses will have an easier time with most of them.
1. Make your technical people available for social media opportunities, and not just your marketing people. Different communities have different levels of technical savvy, and Ars Techncia's community is known for one of the savviest. This makes it critical that companies be prepared to put their most technical foot forward (to mangle the metaphor) when their representatives engage our community directly in the context of a social media campaign. Our users don't come to Ars to be marketed to--they come to contribute their time and their considerable expertise, and they expect everyone they engage with, including sponsors, to do likewise.
You may be targeting a less tech-savvy community with a social media campaign, but the point still stands. If just one well-respected member of your target community is tech-savvy, and if this member makes a fool of your marketing folks when they arrive on his or her home turf to do a sales pitch, then that's all it takes to damage your brand in the eyes of that community.
2. Acknowledge legitimate criticisms. No product is perfect, and in many cases dedicated users will have a serious gripe about some aspect of your product. It's important to own these criticisms, instead of either ignoring them (bad idea) or getting your back up and getting into a fight with users (worse idea). If you try to ignore a criticism that is indeed legit, other community members might smell blood and gang up on you, in which case you can go from being a guest to a hostile outsider very quickly. And, of course, if your social media person decides to dig in and fight it out with the users, even formerly friendly users may join the instigator in ganging up on you.
The best way to handle legitimate criticism (and your technical people are the ones who can really tell you if it's legit or not) is to ackowledge your shortcoming and pledge to improve it. A "we know this is an issue and we're working on it--what input can you give us?" moment can be great for a brand, and we've actually seen this work. It diffuses any hostility, and users feel flattered that you're treating them like partners in your quest to give them a better product.
3. Be prepared to intervene in a social media discussion outside of normal business hours. If you're doing a social media campaign with that involves direct engagement between your people and end-users, be aware that the end-users don't necessarily limit their participation in discussions to normal business hours in your time zone. A discussion can go off the rails at midnight, and you could wake up to a few hundred comments that are either off-topic or hostile. This means that your people have to be checking into the discussion periodically whenever they're awake, and they should be prepared to jump in and get the discussion back on track at any time.
4. Keep all stakeholders in direct contact, so they can coordinate directly to address any problems that come up. As a followup to the previous point, it's difficult to address a developing, user-generated flare-up if the brand representatives and the host community's representatives have to play a game of "telephone" through too many intermediaries. "Telephone" may work fine when you're launching the campaign, but in emergencies you'll need to be able to move a lot faster.
5. Know when a social media campaign isn't a good fit. If your product has real shortcomings that you're not prepared to acknowledge and fix, then a social media campaign is probably not the best idea. Likewise if your company is a target of protest for labor or environmental practicles. In short, know the terrain you're heading in to (again, your technical people are a good resource here), and know when to pass on social media opportunities.