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Why You Need a Social Media Policy and Tips on Writing One

Tips on Social Media Policy for Small BusinessesIf you own a small business or are responsible for marketing one, you probably already recognize the beauty of social media. In leveling the playing field in terms of business size and capital, social media helps you increase your online presence, build your brand and drive many different types of conversions.

Of course, the lines between business and personal use of social media are often blurred. According to a 2009 report from Forrester Research, four out of five American adults who go online use a social media outlet at least once a month, and half participate in social networks like Facebook. Plus, small business employees usually wear many hats. So, you may have your service tech tweeting, your office manager facebooking and your sales team blogging. It’s all in a day’s work!

Naturally, in the midst of all this positive buzz, there has to be a downer. That downer usually comes in the form of negative comments (I’ll talk about handling these in a future post) or updates from employees who may not be thinking a whole lot about the consequences of what they’re posting. People often forget that social media (and other forms of electronic communication) aren’t private. It’s like using a megaphone, and the fallout has the potential to damage your company’s reputation.

That’s why virtually every business needs a social media policy. This is not a new concept, of course, but it can easily get overlooked.

You’re busy. (Never a good excuse.)
You just got started with social media. (Is there a better time to create a policy?)
You don’t think you need one. (Review the second and third paragraphs of this post.)
You aren’t sure how to write one. (OK. This one is understandable.)

A recent article by Diane Stafford, writer for the Kansas City Star, notes that “case law and regulatory opinions are building more slowly than the social media use they’re trying to control.” So, right now, there are no hard and fast rules with social media policies – which makes this whole prospect a little nerve-wracking.

Back in 2009, Sharlyn Lauby of Mashable.com published 10 Must-Haves for Your Social Media Policy. I think she put together an excellent list, and it was one of several sources that helped inspire me when I wrote Pole Position Marketing’s policy.

Here’s my take on crafting a workable social media policy for a small business. These tips serve only as a baseline and can, of course, be tailored to your culture and environment. They are not intended, however, to take the place of legal advice. (Yea, lawyer fees!)

Stay Positive and Focus on Good Communication
Social media is not inherently good or bad. It’s how you use it. So, when you write your policy, keep it centered on what good and appropriate communication is, as opposed to trying to list every possible negative thing people should avoid. However, employees (and teenagers everywhere) do need to recognize that every post, blog or comment is public and, thanks to search engines, will live forever.

Define What Social Media is
Social media is more than just Facebook and Twitter. You need to consider YouTube, Flickr, social news sites, social bookmarking sites and blogs. Employees should be aware that you define social media more broadly and include any type of website or forum where conversation or comments occur in the online world.

Define Why Your Business is Using Social Media
For most small businesses, there are five primary reasons to participate in social media:

  1. To engage current and potential customers in authentic conversation and positively influence their buying decisions.
  2. To generate traffic (blog, website or, if applicable, a brick-and-mortar location), leads and conversions.
  3. To establish thought leadership in your industry.
  4. To share the company’s culture and brand in a genuine, professional manner.
  5. To take customer service to a new level.

Since social media has Walmart hours, these functions may be taking place any time of the day or night – stretching far beyond the traditional 8-to-5 business day. So, whatever an employee’s personal reasons for using social media, they need to understand what the company expects out of its social media presence and support that at all times.

Emphasize Personal Responsibility
I alluded to this earlier in my post, and it was probably the most important take-away from Lauby’s article. Employees need to be responsible for what they write, even when they’re not working. Your policy should remind them that, any time they interact online, the information may be read by people who have, had or may someday have connections to your company. Employees speak for themselves, but their actions represent your company.

Provide Points of Reference
It would be nice if you could tell employees to use common sense and good judgment online, and just leave it at that. But, people’s opinions about common sense and good judgment differ, so it’s a good idea to give them some guidelines. Here are a few ideas:

  • When making a comment online, employees should somehow use their name or identity. This can help your company establish authenticity and will hopefully enable you to create relationships with prospective clients.
  • Employees should focus on adding value to any conversation. This will help establish your company as a thought leader in your industry.
  • Follow copyright, fair use and financial disclosure laws. Give credit where credit is due.
  • Share opinions respectfully. Employees should avoid posting anything they would not want their mom (or spouse or boss) to read.
  • Employees must protect your company’s confidential and proprietary information. Let them know that failure to observe this may be hazardous to their job.
  • Employees must protect your company’s reputation. You don’t want to take yourself or the company too seriously. But, employees should avoid insulting the company and their co-workers, even as a joke. They should also keep sensitive or potentially controversial work conversations private. Encourage them to ask if they are in doubt.
  • Remind them to balance personal and professional social media time. For any social media campaign to be successful, a reasonable time investment is required. However, time spent on social media should not interfere with performing the core competencies of their job.

Do you have any good ideas to add to this list? Tell me about them. You can also follow me on Twitter at @martijen.

Jen Carroll

Jen Carroll, Pole Position Marketing’s social media and content marketing strategist, brings more than 15 years of business writing and communication experience to Pole Position Marketing. She can also talk your ear off about English lit, history, J.R.R. Tolkien and scads of other captivating topics. Mention them at your own risk. Read Jen’s full bio.

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3 Responses to Why You Need a Social Media Policy and Tips on Writing One

  1. Glenn says:

    Jen – nice job ! You’re “Five Primary Reasons to Participate in Social Media” is as well said as any list I have seen and 2 through 5 of your points of reference have been important long before Social Media existed.

    I know your emphasis is on “stay positive” but should a Social Media Policy also suggest options for how an employee should deal with negative or even damaging comments ?

    • Jen Carroll says:

      Glenn – you make a very good point! I’m going to be writing another post this week about handling negative comments, and I will bring your suggestion into it. Thanks!