I recently listened to a handful of business leaders talk about social media and its place in the corporate world. It was interesting to see. Some metaphorically pointed out into the distance. “Social media belongs out there.” The feeling is that social media is something that exists outside of their business.

There is a growing consensus within organizations that social media needs to be taken seriously, that companies should devise some kind of social media plan, but very few have a true understanding of the various components that can make up social media.

Part of the discussion centred on why social media is important to their organization. The general consensus was that it can be a good PR tool. Some were more articulate than others, talking about issues ranging from identifying influencers to reaching the young dollar. “You do this through going to where your customers are.” As to where they think their customers are the most common answers were. “On MySpace, Facebook, YouTube.” “They are online, uploading photos, sharing videos, and attacking each other with flesh-eating zombies.”

But this view of social media is very limiting. To some degree, they are right. Social Media Optimization campaigns, if done right, can and do work well for companies. However, social media consists of more than a collection of pre-existing websites and devising strategies to gain visibility on those sites. When done well, social media can be integrated into the very fabric of an organization.

Social media, for me, consists of a set of tools, applications, widgets and software programmes that are used to connect people to organizations in a way that allows for the multidirectional flow of information through the participation of all stakeholders. What that means really depends on who you are, your objectives and your point of view.

Let’s look at it from a different angle. If I asked you what you could do with a piece of paper, your answer would differ depending on who you are. If you were an author you would possibly write a story. If you were an artist you would, say, paint a picture, or draw a still life. A mathematician might work out some complicated equation, or methodically write out a ‘to do’ list. I gave a piece of paper to my son and he made a paper aeroplane. An origami artist might create a three dimensional dragon that breathes fire and flaps its wings. A pyromaniac may set it alight to watch it burn. A computer programmer would probably put the paper back in the printer paper tray.

Here a piece of paper becomes more than just a way to distribute the written word. Social media tools can be adapted to fit your objectives, to communicate and seek participation that makes sense to you and your organization. We may not all have the need for our audiences to upload videos onto our corporate site, however using a similar system of tagging and organizing content will resonate well with people who are used to searching in that manner.

Organizations really need to embrace social media from within. This does not mean simply adding social media tools onto their website and randomly trying to create a dialogue with their customers or stakeholders. Before creating a social media strategy for an organization, here are some questions I ask:

  1. What are the business objectives of the organization? What are you trying to achieve?
  2. Who are your stakeholders? Who are the audiences? I mean who are they really? What are their learning styles? Their expectations? How do they interact with the world?
  3. How can you marry your unique business requirements with who your audiences and stakeholders are?

Once we have a clearer understanding of the above, then a social media strategy can be formulated.