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A Twitter page is displayed on an Apple iPhone. (Mario Anzuon/Reuters)
A Twitter page is displayed on an Apple iPhone. (Mario Anzuon/Reuters)

Grow: Mia Wedgbury

Step carefully into social media campaigns Add to ...

A lot of entrepreneurs I talk to ask about social media strategies to drive sales. The perception is that by leveraging social networks like Facebook, Twitter and blogs, a company can cost effectively get a message out on their own. The challenge is, business owners don't always think about what might go wrong.

The first principle of engagement with a social media network is to be transparent. I can't tell you how many times we have been pulled in after the fact to help companies in crisis because a member of their team has gone online under a false alias and blogged positively about a product or service they represent.

Employees are passionate about the companies they work for. When they read negative blog posts about their products, they want to respond to the post and defend their point of view. The problem is that they often do it under a false persona, thinking it will make their post more credible and help change perceptions.

The result is often a powerful and passionate backlash. Members of social media networks are incredibly savvy. They know how to police their communities, and when people pretend to be someone they are not, the community usually finds out. Once that happens, the damage to your company's reputation is already done and it is very difficult to recover.

The second principle of social media engagement is to make sure your campaign message is relevant and authentic. Too often, business owners think social media networks are a way to push a message out to their customers. The challenge is that unlike advertising – a one-way communications strategy – social media strategies are based on a two-way dialogue. If your customers don't like your message, they will be extremely vocal and let everyone in the community know.

In this case, it's really important to monitor the online discussion, adjust your message and respond to the posts. You may not always nail your campaign, but you will receive a lot of goodwill and credibility by admitting you made a mistake and tweaking your program based on the feedback provided by the community members.

The final principle all business owners should keep in mind before embarking on a social media strategy is to listen. Entrepreneurs are busy. They don't always have time to do all their research before launching a new marketing or communications strategy. That said, researching relevant online communities and what is being said by the most influential stakeholders will ensure your program is on message and relevant to the audiences you are trying to reach. It may take a little more time, but in the long run the payoff will be immense.

Leveraging social networks can be a powerful way to get your message out. If you do it right, campaigns can go viral and reach thousands of customers. Savvy business owners do their research and find passionate communities that already exist and want to know more about your product and services. Engaging with members of these communities online can provide a channel into a whole new customer base, but they must be managed in a way that does not come back to bite you down the road.

Don't send the communications experts in to clean up the mess after the fact. Consult them at point of concept and think through all the vulnerabilities and worst case scenarios associated with your campaign in advance. Your business and its long term reputation are worth the upfront investment.

Special to the Globe and Mail

Mia Wedgbury, president and co-founder of High Road Communications, operates Canada's largest public relations agency focused on technology and digital lifestyle.

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