Dipping a toeSix tools for trying social media on for size

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Free puppy

Last week, I mentioned BC Hydro's Deb LeRose, and the brilliant opening slide in her social media presentation: the one that shows a free puppy and a baby. Her point is that, like many social media presences, each is supposedly "free". But you have to look at the long-term cost, whether it's feeding your dog... clothing and educating your child... or maintaining an effective, engaging social media presence.

So what if you're not sure you're ready yet?

The good news is that - just as you can babysit a niece or nephew, or volunteer to take your neighbour's Shih Tzu for the weekend - you can get your feet wet in social media without diving in over your head. You'll get at least a sense of the kind of time and attention various tools demand, and that can help you start planning your organization's first public foray.

Here are six ways to try social media on for size - midnight feedings, shedding, dirty diapers and all - before you commit your organization to taking the leap.

Facebook

Been resisting the siren song of Facebook? Its flaws are undeniable and well-documented... but you won't understand why people stay involved with it until you jump in yourself. Create a personal profile, and use the privacy settings to keep your cards as close to your vest as possible... then start exploring.

Join a few groups, fan a few pages, install a few applications... but go easy at first, especially with expanding your herd of "friends". (At least, until you get a good feeling for the difference between "friends" and friends.) Get to know how people interact, and then ramp up: from leaving comments on walls to sharing photos, videos and anything else you want to. And be sure to check out how organizations like yours are engaging with Facebook - especially what works and what doesn't.

Google profile

Before you go much further (you're still only toe-deep), you'll want to create some kind of identity on the web: a home base where people who meet you can go to find out who you really are. One handy way to do that is to create a Google profile. (Here's mine.)

Start with the basic information: you name, a (non-embarrassing) photo, a brief bio and whatever contact information you feel comfortable sharing. In time, you'll be able to add pointers to your other social media presences - a blog, a LinkedIn account, Facebook, what have you - but for now keep it simple. Your goal initially is just to have a landing page with some basic information.

Delicious

Nearly four years ago, Alex introduced Social Signal's readers to the beauty of Delicious and social bookmarking. The elevator pitch: store your bookmarks in the cloud instead of on your computer, and you can use them with any browser on any device, discover similar sites, sort by tags instead of strict hierarchies (although some browsers are finally getting wise to this, too), share with others, and discover people with similar interests.

Here's what makes this a great way to sample the social media world: it's completely scalable. At first, you can store bookmarks in complete privacy; screw up, say something dumb, and nobody need ever know. Take the time to add a few notes about them, then get the hang of tagging (re-read Alex's post), and then start checking out bookmarks with similar tags from other people.

Once you're ready to lay out the welcome mat, you can start saving your bookmarks publicly - and even then, you'll discover that Delicious makes next to no social demands on you. (Handy hint: be sure to snag the bookmarklet that lets you bookmark any site with a mouse click.)

Commenting

Now it's time to take your first big step: expressing an opinion, tied to your identity. Yes, you could comment anonymously... but if you're going to be responsible for an organization's social media presence - and reputation - you need to get used to the idea that anonymity is often illusory. Better for an organization to stand behind their content than to be accused of sock-puppeting or astroturfing.

Pick a blog you like, and follow it for a while, reading not only the posts but the comments. Get a feel for the local culture. And then find an opportunity to weigh in with a comment that adds something to the conversation: a new point of view, some pertinent information, a useful link.

Lean more toward conversational than provocative, and keep your comment relatively brief (again, keeping in mind the typical comments on the blog). Then keep watching the blog for responses to your comment; where appropriate, respond to them, and build a conversation.

Posterous

Let's combine the skills you picked up on Delicious with your commenting chops. Head on over to Posterous (or Tumblr, or any of a number of other similar sites) and set up an account.

For all intents and purposes, you've just created a blog. Deep breaths - and relax: this is a surprisingly easy blog to maintain. What you'll be doing here is logging the interesting things you find online, just as you did with Delicious. (And here, too, the bookmarklet is your friend.) But you get to choose an excerpt to include, and add your comment about the page, video or image you found.

You can also check out other users, subscribe to their feeds, comment on their posts and, yes, do a little social networking. But at first, be conservative about how visible you are. That helps to keep the stakes low until you decide whether you're in this for the long haul, and want to invest the time and social capital in building a more networked presence.

Guest-blogging

Got a particular area of expertise? Chances are there's a blog out there on that topic... with an author who wouldn't mind running a few posts of yours. Your best bet is someone in your personal network, or a friend of a friend who can vouch for you; you may have to knock on a few virtual doors before you find someone who's willing to take you on.

Talk over expectations and possible topics, agree on a schedule of posts, and then stick to it (to get used to the idea of a steady rhythm of content creation). Respect the tone and voice of the blog's author (although you don't have to imitate it). Talk up your posts in your other online presences, and engage whatever conversation emerges in the blog's comments and on other blogs. Finish off with a thank-you post mentioning both the author and the blog's community for having you, and ride off into the sunset... until your next guest-blogging stint.

Ready to bring that puppy home?

Now you've had a real taste of the world of social media, what was it like? Were the time demands onerous, or were you able to manage them? Did you find that words came easily to you, or was it like pulling teeth? (And did you find yourself resorting to clichés like "pulling teeth"?)

What you've learned in this six-city tour of social media is only the beginning. (We barely even touched video, audio or photography.) But now you have a first-hand sense of the time required and the degree of public exposure it can involve.

What's more, hopefully you've done more than just clean up dog poop and change baby diapers. You've also had a glimpse of the more rewarding side of the social web - the shared ideas and relationships that can be so powerful both for individuals and for organizations.

So now you get to decide: is your organization ready for a puppy of its very own?

Comments

Anonymous says

March 30, 2010 - 11:16pm

Thank you for this introduction. We are at the cross roads, if we can step up our game in the social media arena, then our humble little business, our passion will have a chance to provide career and social development to our community.

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