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What is the real cost of a social networking effort? (or, Twitter can be risky business)

July 15, 2009

Often people ask me about the ROI on investing in social networking services. My answer tends to be twofold – cost and risk. In currency terms, the cost of participating on existing platforms is negligible and more sophisticated offerings (e.g. your own Facebook app or your own user generated content site) might cost a few bob but nothing compared to the cost of a transactional platform. The real cost is risk, what is the risk of embarking on such a journey?

Dave’s half dozen social networking risks to consider

  • How you use these tools is inconsistent with your brand. I work for a consulting firm and an important part of our brand equity is our ability to maintain information confidential. It wouldn’t really be appropriate for someone in my firm to tweet “met with CIO of company x today to discuss their new sourcing platform”.
  • Your message is poorly crafted. Gordon Brown’s use of YouTube to try lead the discussion on the expenses scandal is widely covered and widely derided. No matter whether you agree with what he said, as a politician his message was relevant to current events and he was right to try and get it out there. He just didn’t do it particularly well.
  • Your timing is rotten. The immediate response to any such initiative will be considered in the context of events at the time. Are you a politician looking to build a followership? Launching the day after your name was in amongst the expenses sinners means all commentary will be linked your expenses matters.
  • What you publish is inconsistent with your brand. As exciting as the press makes it seem, social networking services are ‘just’ another channel. What you say on your Facebook page needs to be consistent with what you are saying in your advertising. And this needs to be consistent with what your call centre staff say on your customer services desk.
  • You’re inviting your detractors to speak up. This is often the hardest part to accept, social networking sites give people free rein to say what they really think about your product / service. I tend to think it’s better to know what people are saying than not as at least this allows you to manage the market’s perception. And, as the widely covered United breaks guitars story reminds us, if you don’t create the space to do this other people will.
  • There’s no turning back. The Internet is pervasive. Google (and other sites) cache everything so once you’ve launched such an initiative, it’s out there for good. The commonly cited rule of thumb is not to publish anything that you would be embarrassed to see repeated. And you can be sure that if it is embarrassing, it will be repeated. Often. Perhaps even often enough to hit the popular press.

I’m not saying don’t do social networking. Certainly not, what I’m saying is think about what you’re doing and – just like any technology implementation – be sure to consider and actively mitigate the risks.

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