Have you ever had an audience member ask one of those questions that seems out of context at first, but it nags at you until you realize how important it was?  That happened to me several months ago when I was a presenter at a webinar with Christy Campbell of Socialware and Stephen Selby of LIMRA.

We were talking about social media, and how marketers in a regulated industry could implement one without compliance problems. Christie Campbell was showing a slide on the social media lifecycle, and offering excellent advice on the pre-planning that implementing a successful social media campaign requires.  She has just shown this excellent graphic of the lifecycle of a social media campaign in a regulated industry like insurance or financial services.

The question that I thought was out of context was, “But I can have a new social media profile set up in 15 minutes flat, and it’s free.  So why not go ahead and try something – and if it fails, just start over with a new account?”

As it happens, I know several teenage girls who’ve done just that:  reinventing themselves online every few months as their interests (and hair color) changed, or whenever they got a new boyfriend or a new wardrobe.  Reinventing yourself is part of being a teenager – but it’s hardly productive for a corporate marketer who needs to show management a clear return on investment for their social media campaign.

The question nagged at me, though.  And I’ve finally decided that there are five steps that you should take before you launch a social media marketing campaign.  If you do them correctly, you won’t need to reinvent your brand online – but you won’t get the campaign set up and running this afternoon, either.

Step 1:  Budget for the Real Cost of Social Media

Social media is not free.  It consumes finite resources like time, yet because many of the tools used in social media marketing are free, it can be easy to underestimate the true cost of creating content, syndicating it across the social media sites, and then measuring and managing the program for best results.  And don’t forget the cost of training employees, setting up the required monitoring and compliance tools, and reporting the results.

Social media marketing success is a marathon, not a sprint.  Everyone gets excited the first the first time a tweet gets retweeted often, or whenever blog traffic spikes.  And who doesn’t like seeing those Facebook Likes and Google Plus1 icons go up and up and up?  Unfortunately, those things aren’t always the true measure of a social media campaign’s success – and they’re completely irrelevant when management wants to know how much income can be tracked directly to social media.

So understanding the investment – in people, tools, and time – that will be required to make the social media program deliver measurable results, and then to gather the data in a format that makes good business sense – is critical.

Step 2:  Create a Social Media Marketing Schedule

When I was in business school, I had a professor who repeated the phrase, “Plan your work and work your plan” so often that our entire class began parroting it back to him (sometimes in other languages, so it sounded like a polyglot echo).  The older I’ve gotten, the more I realized just how right he was.

Repeat after me:  the people who get fired for what they say on Twitter or Facebook didn’t plan to get into trouble.  The companies that wind up as the punch line of a late-night TV monologue didn’t plan on doing something stupid online.  In fact, chances are, they didn’t have much of a plan at all.  It’s all too easy to mistake the casual, conversational tone of social media as a kind of free-form conversation between friends.  But it’s not.  Not if you have a brand and a company image to protect – and certainly not if you work in a regulated industry.  (Some of the most regulated industries in the world might not seem that way at first glance.  Did you know that the person most likely to be fired, demoted, or disciplined at work over something said online is a public school teacher, followed by a civil servant?  Most of us who work in insurance, financial services, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, casino gaming or some other heavily regulated industry at least know that we work in a regulated industry.)

It’s helpful to turn your social media calendar into a kind of editorial schedule that tells you on a weekly, monthly, and quarterly basis what themes, messages, and content you want to share.  This allows you to make sure that you have all the content you need, and you’re never faced with a blank screen, wondering what to tweet today.

Personally, I find it helpful to write everything associated with a particular message at once.  So when I wrote this blog post, I also write the tweets, social media abstracts for Facebook, LinkedIn, Reddit, StumbleUpon, and Google+, and the meta descriptions, hashtags, keywords, and other SEO tools I’d need when it was time to promote the blog post.  Press releases, email campaigns, and PPC ads are among the other marketing tools I use around social media or content marketing campaigns.

On my editorial calendar for social media, I include our blog and our social media pages, and I track what kind of message is associated with each topic.  This blog is a “best practices” site, which offers a mix of original content, guest posts, and industry news that we hope is useful to our readers.  We cover certain topics, and I check off which of the target topics are covered in a particular blog post – so I can tell at a glance whether I need to write a post about a topic that’s been neglected, or when I’ve talked too much about one topic.

Step 3:  Don’t Forget Traditional Media Support

Social media is a new communications channel that you can use to promote your business.  But it isn’t a replacement for traditional marketing communications channels.  You can’t slash the advertising budget, stop sending out press releases, and cut out your print collateral budget in hopes that social media will take up all the slack.

Multi-channel marketing is more effective when all the parts and pieces work together to deliver a cohesive, clear message.  A whopping 57% of today’s skeptical consumers need to hear the same corporate marketing message more than five times before they believe it, according to the annual trust survey.  Yes, repeating links to your content through social media helps – but it can’t replace having a consistent message that’s delivered across multiple channels.

Step 4:  Socialize Your Company Website

Optimizing your company website remains the most important step you can take towards marketing success.  No, a great Facebook page or other social media site won’t replace the tried and true company website.  Not for more businesses – especially those who need to be finable through mobile devices or geolocation sites.

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of marketers who treat their websites as static content that doesn’t changed often, while treating social media as dynamic content that is updated or added to daily.  But why not bring fresh content to your website by adding unique RSS feeds from social media sites?  And don’t forget to add plenty of thought leadership content like white papers and articles – and to cross-promote them in multiple marketing channels as well as public relations.

Planning to socialize your company website when you’re planning your social media campaign for the year allows you to automate the process and set up the internal infrastructure and tools you’ll need to manage the process.  I’m not an HTML expert, and I’m not a coder, despite having worked in the technology industry for many years.  So I can’t just decide to make a change to the website, log on to the CMS, and do it on the fly.  I think that’s a good thing, because it enforces the pre-planning and time management that makes the whole process run more smoothly.

Step 5: Develop a Crisis Communication Plan

I’m going to assume that you already have a social media policy that outlines who speaks for your company, and that your employees are well trained in the legal issues and rules that go along with having their say in social media while keeping their jobs.  If not, don’t even think about stating a social media marketing campaign until your social media policy is complete.

After a social media policy, the next most important thing to have in place is a crisis communications plan.

It’s going to happen.  Somebody is going to post something negative on your Facebook page, or say nasty things about your company or your brand on Yelp or Twitter.  What are you going to do about it?  And who decides how to handle it?

Social media marketing shouldn’t be isolated in its own department, and I personally don’t think it should ever be outsourced to an “expert” or freelancer.  In fact, the more people in the company who are part of the social media team, the better.  At a minimum, the person who’s mainly responsible for social media needs guaranteed instant access to human resources, legal, customer service, billing and accounting, PR (if they aren’t already part of the PR team) and top management.

When I say “instant access”, I don’t mean weekly status meetings, either.  I mean that when a decision has to be made, or a response needs to be sent right now, they can get the approval or information they need to do it.  An hour can be forever if a negative tweet is going viral.  It takes time to track down the facts sometimes – which is why an advance crisis communications plan is absolutely essential.

Before it happens, decide how you’re going to respond to negative product or service comments, complaints, leaks of confidential information, and plain old-fashioned stupid comments from employees.  Long ago, I was a RAT – part of the corporate communications response action team at a large oil and chemical company.  Our job was to handle the public and the press in the event of a disaster.

When there’s an oil tanker on fire, or a chemical truck spilling pesticides that are rolling downhill toward a schoolyard, we didn’t have time to think about how to answer the questions reporters were firing at us.  And there certainly wasn’t time to get legal to review our statements.

Social media is a lot like that.  You need a plan in place, and you need to know how management wants a crisis handled (as well as what constitutes a crisis – sometimes ignoring a troll who is saying something stupid is the right action).

Planning for the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of social media is just good business.  The benefits of being part of the online world far outweigh the potential negatives, even for very regulated industries.  So don’t wait.  If you’re not already using social media as a key part of your marketing communications strategy, start now.

Well, not this minute.  But as soon as you’ve taken these five steps.

Graphic credit:  The social media lifestyle graphic included with this blog post was created by Socialware, and used in a joint webinar sponsored by Distribion, LIMRA, and Socialware.  You can download the entire presentation by clicking here.  The image is the property of Socialware, and is used with permission; all rights are reserved by the copyright holder.

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