Using social media can help strengthen a company's culture, improve internal communications and make the business smarter, says Susan Cranston, a senior business advisor at Manulife.
"Social media should be part of any integrated communications plan," says Ms. Cranston, Assistant Vice-President, Group Small Business Marketing & Advisor Services, Manulife Financial in Waterloo, Ontario.
Fifty-five per cent of Canadian businesses have some sort of social media presence, according to a Leger Marketing survey released in July. While key reasons include brand promotion, marketing and customer relations, social media are also important tools for employee communication and collaboration.
"It's the chance to join a conversation, and it's immediate," Ms. Cranston says. "Social media can help promote community. It removes hierarchical barriers."
Small businesses can use social media to help level the playing field with larger companies. Only one in ten companies surveyed by Leger Marketing mentioned a lack of human resources as the most significant barrier to embarking on a social media program.
Meetings and memos have been the traditional route to communicate company news and programs to employees. But the likes of Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and internal social networks have become the digital water cooler. Blogs, videos, tweets and social networks are as much of a "game changer" as the introduction of the telephone, Ms. Cranston says.
Employees can use these vehicles to learn about or comment on company initiatives, propose ideas for all to consider, ask questions of colleagues, and source out whom to go to for answers.
"Businesses have a chance to become smarter through social networks, as employees find new information and increase their knowledge," Ms. Cranston says. One of the biggest potential benefits is greater creativity and innovation, aided by virtual discussions. She goes on Facebook to check how a colleague is faring with her company's volunteer challenge, and to find and comment on inspirational stories about giving back to the community. "It's a great way to connect."
Within that professional setting, colleagues can also get to know each other even better – across multiple offices – which can help to strengthen the company culture.
Overall, respondents to the Leger survey said that time constraints and a lack of familiarity with social websites among some business owners are the biggest obstacles to integrating a social media strategy into a business plan.
Small businesses should realize that social media can facilitate growth, comments Melonie Dodaro, a strategist with Top Dog Social Media in Kelowna, B.C. The technology is a quick and economical way to reach out to and listen to the marketplace.
"It's a tool no small business owner should be without, and it's a trend no small business owner can ignore," Ms. Dodaro says.
For critical business communications, Ms. Cranston agrees that face-to-face encounters still have a primary place. But she says that businesses have to recognize that just as their markets are already using social media, so are their employees. That preference may help to drive even greater adoption of social media as an internal communications vehicle.
"It's how people connect outside work, so social media is a way to encourage employees to interact," says Ms. Cranston.