As you are well aware by now, a relatively new phenomenon has gained prominence in business circles over the past few years: social networking. In its simplest terms, social networking is the practice by which Internet users build relationships with other Internet users.
The universe of sites that help them perform this task is known as the “social media.” There are dozens of examples of existing social media networks, but the most prominent being used in business are Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube.
Because such sites allow fast in-teraction with a large number of global consumers, social media have become appealing to businesses big and small for a host of sales and marketing functions. Social media provide an effective way to keep customers informed of new products, company news and pricing specials, as well as for your employees to gain knowledge from experts at a particular company. The ability to engage online with customers, prospects and industry influencers can be an important part of a material handling distributor’s marketing plan and brand strategy.
At AK Material Handling Systems, me and another individual are responsible for maintaining the company-affiliated social media accounts. We have a weekly meeting to determine what products we want to talk about, and then we rely on our salespeople, outfitters and design experts to contribute some of the content. Social media engagement has proven to be a great way to stay up to date with the industry, find out what our competition and customers are saying, learn about new products and brand ourselves. It’s been beneficial in educating our customers and to be educated by other individuals and groups.
|AK Material Handling Systems’
Social Media AccountsTwitter: @AKequipment, @MN_Pallet_Rack, @PalletRackNow, @WPRP_PalletRackLinkedInFacebook
The benefits are many, but there can also be some drawbacks if employees don’t use these tools properly. We developed a policy to help ensure that we stay on course as a company, and at the same time safeguard our employees’ personal privacy. Each employee is asked to sign it. There are a number of details to consider, and some practices that we’ve found successful are outlined below.
Maintaining a Good Reputation
The employees who are posting to the social media on behalf of your company must be schooled in brand management. They are the face of the company to the outside world, and therefore should always be respectful, clear and thoughtful when expressing ideas and opinions. Do not permit them to belittle or insult others, including competitors. A competitor or friend may be following your postings, and a follower of theirs may be offended by your social interactions. Right or wrong, they will be upset not only with the individual but also with the company.
We encourage our social media users to link to outside sources of information when appropriate. Our contacts can then easily access the information we are referencing. However, make sure your policy includes an explanation of the appropriate use of links. Redirecting to an outside source may imply an endorsement of all its content, which can cause problems if you aren’t careful.
The policy should be clear about what, if any, material from outside sources may be referenced beyond a simple link. For instance, our policy states that employees may not use copyrighted material without direct permission. Copyright laws state that “fair use” is not infringement, but we choose to err on the conservative side and ban use of copyrighted material altogether.
Finally, don’t make unsubstantiated claims about product features, performance or pricing. If you need to respond or make a comment on something specific, verify the details through company-published information.
MHEDA Social Media Accounts
LinkedIn: MHEDA Group
We encourage all of our employees to be involved in social media, and many, even those who are not officially speaking for the company, have their own accounts and utilize them on their own time.
Caution is advised, but at the same time, your social media contributors shouldn’t be afraid to be themselves. The more often employees use company-approved social media, the more difficult it is to keep distinct lines between their personal and professional lives. Part of our policy states: “Even when you are talking as an individual, people may perceive you to be talking on behalf of AK Material Handling Systems. If you blog about shelving, conveyors or other topics related to AK Material Handling Systems, be upfront and explain that you work for AK Material Handling Systems. However, if you are not an official company spokesperson, add a disclaimer to the effect: ‘The opinions and positions expressed are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of AK Material Handling Systems.’” Making such a distinction is not only courteous to the reader, but will increase your credibility.
Elements of an Effective Social Media Policy
• List of company-approved sites and accounts
Mandate that only those authorized by the company may use company logos, to avoid confusion among your followers. The policy should clearly state what brand symbols, if any, may be used by which employees. Unauthorized employees should not include any brand symbols in blogs or posts.
Protecting Your Relationships
Online postings and conversations are not private. Realize that what employees post will be around for a long time and could potentially be shared by others. That’s why your policy should clearly state what level of discussion of sensitive company information, people and products is appropriate. Never discuss proprietary information, including sales data and plans, company finances, strategies or anything considered confidential.
At AK, for example, our policy includes a statement that contributors should avoid identifying and discussing customers, suppliers, friends and co-workers without their explicit permission. This is especially true of pictures. We suggest always obtaining permission before posting pictures of anyone other than the author.
Twitter Can Be A Team Effort
There is no one right social media strategy for a material handling distributorship. Depending on its size, product mix and customer base, different strategies may be equally successful for different distributors.
Lori Cooney, human resources manager/ marketing specialist at Maybury Material Handling (East Longmeadow, MA), has been working with a social media consultant to develop policies and practices to leverage the benefits of social media tools while also protecting the business from misuse. “We’ve decided to groom a team of five individuals who are comfortable with technology and the Internet and who also are ambassadors for the company. Each person has one day during the week when they are responsible for updating and monitoring our company Twitter account (@MayburyMaterial),” Cooney says. “It’s no one’s single job function—they’re managing multiple tasks in addition to Tweeting like accounting, billing, parts sales, and customer service.”
Typically, they tweet once in the morning and once in the afternoon to engage Maybury’s community of Twitter followers. The team came up with some external links, YouTube videos and topics of interest to tweet about and drive traffic to the company website. “We want our followers to recognize Maybury Material Handling as the expert in safety, material handling and logistics,” Cooney says.
The initiative at Maybury is still in its early stages, and a formal social media policy will be unveiled to employees at the end of the year. Such a policy would be included in the general company handbook along with the existing policy which addresses using computers and the Internet as a business tool.
The newness shouldn’t stop distributors from getting involved with social media, according to Cooney. “My advice is to just dive in and not be afraid to start a conversation. Developing a presence is taking time, but it will be worth the time investment once we increase our followers and those we follow. We are learning from each other and do expect increased engagement to also drive traffic to our website,” Cooney says.
One of the aims of social media is to create dialogue, and people won’t always agree on an issue. When confronted with a difference of opinion, stay cool. Express your points in a clear, logical way. Don’t pick fights, and correct mistakes when needed. Sometimes, it’s best to ignore a comment and not give it credibility by acknowledging it with a response.
Part of the appeal in social media is that the conversation occurs in real time. So if you are going to participate in an active way, make sure you are willing to take the time to refresh content, respond to questions and update information regularly, and correct information when appropriate. One is less likely to return to a Web page that has not been updated in the last year. Laying out specific time frames for updating and responding in your policy is recommended.
Social media are constantly changing, with new platforms being added seemingly every day. Some other concepts to cover in any company social media policy:
• Protect personal information. This may seem odd, since many sites are created to help promote sharing of personal information. However, tweeting real-time about an employee’s travels may confirm they aren’t at home—letting someone target their house. This may seem extreme, but you will likely be surprised by how much of your personal information is available to others if they want to find it.
• Don’t be fooled. If employees do post personal information on a site like Facebook or Twitter, make sure they don’t click links or attachments unless they are from a trusted source. Educate employees on ways to sniff out spam, phishing schemes or other ploys that can also be used to infect computers with viruses or spyware.
• Disable dangerous privileges. If a site allows others to embed code—like HTML postings, links or file attachments—on your page or account, criminals can use them to install malicious software on your computers. If possible, disable the ability of others to post HTML comments on your home page.
• Heed security warnings and pop-ups. There’s a reason your security software provides warnings. Never allow or say “yes” unless you know that they are safe.
• Education is the best prevention. So far we haven’t had any blatant violations of our social media policy. Any issues that have come up have been honest mistakes caused by a lack of knowledge or awareness of social media issues. We do our best to educate everyone to avoid any problems and communicate them immediately when they do occur. Social media will be around for a long time, so the more everyone knows, the better we’ll all be.
A Formal Social Networking Policy
You’ve encouraged an employee to become involved in social networking. He spends company time building networks of followers at company expense. He uses the media to expand your company’s brand and promote your company’s good. Then, that employee jumps ship to the distributor across town and takes those followers with him. That doesn’t seem fair, does it?
That’s why it’s important to have a plan in place and keep your liability in check. Data Key Communications, the publisher of The MHEDA Journal, The MHEDA Connection and wikiMHEDA, created a Social Networking Policy for its employee handbook that all employees are required to sign. It reads, in part, “When engaging in social networking, Data Key must ensure that the use of these communications maintains our brand identity, integrity and reputation while minimizing actual or potential legal risks, whether used inside or outside the workplace.”
Data Key developed this policy because of its initiatives to utilize social media over the last 12 months. Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, YouTube channels and LinkedIn accounts have been created by DKC employees to represent The MHEDA Journal and wikiMHEDA. As more and more traffic visits these sites, it became necessary to mitigate the company’s liability in conversations that occur online over such media.
Data Key’s social networking policy was written by a lawyer and contains explicit language regarding both authorized and unauthorized use of social networking. The policy also includes procedures for reporting violations and the discipline that will be taken if a violation occurs. A little protection now can prevent a lot of future pain.
The suggestions laid out here work for us at AK Material Handling Systems, but there’s no one right way to use social media (see sidebar above). It depends on the needs and capabilities of each individual company. Regardless of what social media strategy you use, it’s up to you to make sure your employees are aware of the responsibilities and the risks involved.
|Meet the Author
Joshua Smith is director of sales and operations at AK Material Handling Systems, located in Maple Grove, Minnesota, and on the Web at www.akequipment.com.