Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Should Our Business Tweet in the Cloud? Social Twittering for Business

The jury’s still out for most businesses on whether or not significant effort is made in “tweeting” information via Twitter.com – but the evidence is IN regarding whether or not to simply sign up and prepare to do so.

Your company’s online popularity, reputation and ultimately success is derived from two core things – what you say, and what others say about you. Let’s address these communication elements as “attributed source information” (ASI). “Attributed” from the perspective that there is in fact a known source (though it may be an anonymous ID), “source” from the perspective that it’s the very first sincere representation of the communication or concept actually published online, and “information” in that it’s not just some data or graphic fragments, it’s actually a message or concept with enough context to drive interest.

If it’s non-attributed, non-source or just bits n’ pieces (i.e. not “information”), there’s not much you can do about it as “evidence” – but, just like any good lawyer or PR consultant, you can shape, evolve, dispute, share or otherwise react to the material to meet any of your agendas.

Back to Twitter (or any other social media channel), it’s a simple prospect – the more ASI you post about yourself, the more you’re likely to get posted about you. It’s common practice these days, and basic SEO “block and tackling”, to post as many “billboards” about your company as possible around reputable Internet sites and directories, with short marketing messages and direct backlinks. In fact, most businesses should take every opportunity to create a standard billboard, profile or directory entry among all popular social platforms that allow it – this also helps preserve and protect the core “brand”. Therefore, most companies should establish an “unprotected” (i.e. publicly viewable) Twitter ID, create a basic profile, and establish a minimally-acceptable, germane and objective list of followers and regular corporate news updates (ASI). Re-tweets and requests to follow, and engage with you online, will be a typical “community-managed” affair, and be likely kept to a minimum with few “incidents”. This is truly no different than online press releases, many of which these days include and syndicate the press release ASI across multiple social media channels, including Twitter.

Some may see this sort of bland, generic Twitter land-grab as contrary to the “spirit” of the medium, and therefore a “poser” action – but Twitter use is ubiquitous enough now in the business and marketing community where this may no longer be the majority vocal opinion. It simply must be done, and is expected. All professional Internet Marketing and Social Media Consultants should recommend this.

Beyond this generic use of Twitter is where the potholes are. If your company is prepared to engage, across multiple agendas and subjects, with the online community that WILL develop as you post additional ASI – then you’ll need to develop your policies and procedures for Twitter, as a part of your broader “public discourse” strategy and risk-management framework. These include addressing what you post (i.e. who the authors will be, the backlink strategy, the recurrence and subject-area focus, the degree of personalization, etc.), and how you proactively and/or reactively deal with ASI that others post, in response to your own. Apply some method to the madness.

Otherwise, don’t count on a lot of ROI from your Twitter account, though there are simple benefits from just being at the game. Also don’t be too worried that your Twitter presence, albeit somewhat passive and conformist, will create any significant PR issues. Don’t be surprised, though, if your competitors end up driving and shaping the online conversation (and collecting the customers) with their own risk-managed ASI, in your absence.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Corporate Blogging Framework - Where to Start?

There's been a lot published and dissected over the value and methods for successful corporate blogging, and the intersections between corporate and employee use of social media. What's not been discussed much is the application of Systems Engineering Methodology, within the Information Management Architecture Domain, to implementation of corporate blogging. Being that a corporate blogging program is essentially part of a corporation's "Information-Sharing Line of Business", integrated with and supported by other corporate operational domains (like Marketing & Communications, IT Operations, and Organizational Change Management), it's therefore an IT program -and IT programs are best managed through standardized IT Investment and Systems Engineering Lifecycle methods.

To start, therefore, a corporate blogging program, a framework should be established for program planning, resource scheduling and alignment. This framework will help generate a program CONOPS (concept of operations), solution architecture, program plan and performance measurement indicators. These program artifacts, as any IT Project Manager worth their salt understands, are essential to establishing early buy-in, investment approval, compliance and risk mitigation.

Blogging does introduce 2 very important elements in particular to your Marketing & Communications (Marcom) efforts. First, it’s a new (or another) online content management and distribution platform for corporate information. It needs to be integrated into your overall Information Management infrastructure. Secondly, and most importantly, it’s a new forum for online conversation between your corporation, its employees and/or representatives, and the public. The blog speaks directly to individuals, and they to you – and this conversation needs to reflect the right balance of personable though moderated and useful dialogue.

Here are some facets to consider, in suggested priority order, when establishing your corporate blogging framework - there are many more details and methods to consider (both standard and contextual to a particular company) once the framework matures; these are only initial guidelines.

Governance

1. Executive commitment and approval – share the idea and collect feedback regarding corporate blogging from key executives and corporate legal, policy, public relations and marketing. Simply raising and discussing the initiative, along with some basic education (not everyone understands blogging or microblogging) and examples, will go a long way towards buy-in, integration with other Marcom activities, and a successful governance framework (i.e. who approves what).

2. Champion/Evangelist – establish the “Corporate Blogger Champion/Evangelist” – a well-coordinate program will require some ongoing, insistent initiative by someone who’s ready to answer questions about blogging and social media, and coach others through the learning processes. This person will also take the lead regarding translation of blogging needs and processes to IT requirements, own the ROI – i.e. setting up and reporting tracking metrics, observing the readership trends, adjusting the blog content, process or template, etc.

3. Create a basic, sample decision-making process. Start with the example that a corporate officer/employee announces they will be speaking at an upcoming industry event. Start backwards with the decision-making:

• Who “presses the button” to publish the blog entry?
• Who reviews, edits and approves the final content?
• Who reviews and approves the draft submission?
• Does the employee need approval to create the draft content?

Note that you may end up with several decision workflows, depending on what kind of blog entry it is. At the end of the day, well-balanced blog content will probably be a mix of “corporate” managed content, “employee” direct submissions, “syndicated” content (i.e. brought in or copied from somewhere else) and user/reader submissions. The blogging framework may in fact become multiple blogs – but try to start with just one. There’s a lot of trial and error along the way – and there WILL be some slip-ups in what gets published and how; simply be prepared to deal with this as a course of business.

Note also that your overall "Content Management" workflow may end up with blog entries authored and published internally, and via some kind of content management or "social media governance" process, get published externally (i.e. to your Internet-hosted blog).

Employee Communications and Awareness

1. Share the initiative with employees and trusted advisors – start an internal conversation, perhaps a volunteer working group. What do they think?

2. Survey/canvass your employees – are they already active in social media? Do you have any “employee blogging stars” already, with personal online brands? (Check yourself – “Google” employee names and your corporate name – is anyone already an accomplished blogger?) From the reverse perspective – are there reputation management concerns to address, i.e. an erstwhile professional blogger is less constrained with Facebook postings?

Authors

1. “Authorship” is a tricky subject – some great corporate blogs are written by corporate executives, others are wholly supplied by direct employee submissions. Some are simply automatic syndications of content published elsewhere. As the blog matures, it’s likely many authors will be attributed. Start simply for now – establish the “corporate” persona (i.e. “this entry published by –your company-”), and who will actually “be” this persona initially. Should the blog be immediately successful, it’s important to be ready to “reveal” the person behind the persona.

2. For your core authors, determine how they’ll be attributed. (a) Do they want to be personally identified, or anonymized? (b) We recommend only first names for authors who are essentially unknown publically; if the author is already a well-known, public figure online, already associated with your company – then use the whole name. No other PII (personally-identifiable information); no sense in creating new opportunities for spam or online security problems. (c) Use anonymity/corporate persona really only for authorship of posts that truly aren’t suited for personable dialogue – like press releases or announcements.

Topics

1. What to post about? The corporate blog really shouldn’t be just another advertising, marketing or PR vehicle – it’s an opportunity for more personable and honest dialogue. You seek to share information with your readers that you really want and appreciate their input about. (Of course, the ROI is enhanced by inclusion of marketing messages and advertising techniques; to be further discussed). Think about both your SEO keywords AND major sections of your website – what are the top 5 keywords or “tags” you’d use to categorize the blog entries? For example, “zzz”, “xxx”, “xxx News”, “zzz people”, “zzz events” – where “zzz” is your corporate name, and “xxx” is your topical keyword.

2. Align with industry news – while the blogging initiative may eventually result in many threads of dialogue across many topics – start first with your primary marketing agenda, and in particular, items that are timely in the industry. The very best corporate blog entries match targeted keywords with current industry events or news – people exploring popular media-generated news and events should also “run across” your related information.

Content

1. Regardless of the actual subject matter, the blog “content” can take many forms. Simple text, links, external or embedded attachments, photos, videos, scripts/widgets, flash movies, rich internet applications (RIAs). Most search engines can index most of this content, in terms of the text embedded within – but straight HTML text is probably the most important content from an SEO perspective. Focus first on getting the blog text, tags and titles correct, and perhaps some limited use of photos/illustrations. Remember a blog enables syndication of its information to many other websites, mobile devices, readers and applications – always consider how easy it is for others to “consume”, read and re-purpose your content through RSS.

2. Other content can be added as (A) part of the overall blog design (it is a website, after all), and (B) as reusable digital assets are identified within your company, that you’d like to leverage into the blog. The most important point is that the search engines and readers see a constant stream of new, unique, interesting, timely, relevant headlines with basic supporting information and specific keywords, that effectively directs further action (i.e. “read more”, “contact us”, “discuss this”, “support this”, etc.).


Blog Platform/Channels

1. The best objective for a blog platform, is to use an internal, corporate-hosted software product – many content management products (like Sharepoint and Drupal) offer this (though you’ll need to get the components necessary for external publishing “through the firewall” to your external, Internet-hosted website). Wordpress is a free, popular product, on the other end of the spectrum, and can be customized to match your website’s branding, look and feel. (Note – for very sophisticated, highly customized and high traffic blogs, you’ll probably need to spend some money – but the blog initiative budget should be considered as part of your overall Marketing and IT budget).

2. If you’re not ready to devote the time and resources to install/implement an internal blog platform, Internet-hosted blogging services can be leveraged – though you’ll need to consider how to protect these "digital assets" hosted outside your company. There are no guarantees that anything posted on 3rd-party services like wordpress.com or blogger.com will be maintained or protected to your standards – at the very least, blog content should be created and protected internally, before published externally. In fact, such services are known to simply disappear quickly into a larger corporation's acquisition strategy. Take a look at the popular platforms like Wordpress, Blogger, Typepad, Blogsmith - there are pros and cons for each (While I'm a big Wordpress fan, the Blogger capability for FTP'ing content to other websites is really why this blog is hosted by Google).

It’s also important, when using a hosted service, to set up the publishing and links in a manner that generates maximum SEO and Conversion value – by proper linkages back to your website, through syndication of the content back to your site (via RSS widgets or RSS to HTML converters), and by basic copywriting techniques. For example, the external blog “catches” readers with some information, but to get more, and also to subscribe for monthly updates, readers are linked back to your website contact page/subscription process.

3. If you’re really not ready to implement an actual, corporate-branded blog – consider starting to blog in existing forums – i.e., an employee is a member of a LinkedIn group, and posts regular “discussion items”, responds to industry blogs and discussion, etc. It’s a good entry vehicle to testing the “art of public discourse”, choosing and testing keywords, etc.

4. If you do create a blog, whether internally or externally hosted, be prepared for some design/configuration activity, with some knowledge of HTML/RSS required – it is a website, after all, and there are most definitely useful guidelines available for properly designing and optimizing blogs vs. more traditional sites.

After considering these guidelines, you'll likely be ready to construct the Information Management Framework, composed of the Systems Engineering artifacts indicated above, that will enable your Corporate Blogging Framework. Or maybe you're just ready to start blogging!

Stay with this blog for more information about Corporate Blogging Frameworks, or contact me directly for specific help.