After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, oil giant BP experienced a backlash via social media, becoming a victim of “brandhacking”. A source unaffiliated with the multinational company created the Twitter handle @BPGlobalPR, gathering more than 137,000 followers while sending out satirical tweets about the multi-billion-dollar disaster, such as “Catastrophe is a strong word, let’s all agree to call it a whoopsie daisy.” The account is still in existence and has almost double the followers of the actual corporate BP account.

Even the world’s savviest corporate executives can be caught off-guard by the power regular consumers wield when it comes to expressing their thoughts on social media, said Paul Armstrong, founder of UK-based Digital Orange Consulting, who has worked with giants like Google and Mindshare. “Many brands are simply not prepared for the worst-case scenarios,” he added. Only 12% of the 2,100 global companies interviewed in a 2010 Harvard Business Review survey said they were using it effectively, but two-thirds of those companies say their social media use will grow.

Social media is still in its infancy, which is something acknowledged by social media executives and the companies that employ them. In fact, employees on the social media front are the most powerful–and therefore vulnerable–asset a company has when it comes to brand perception. The people charged with maintaining a company’s persona need as much support as those companies can give, both in training and resources.

Crafting a roadmap
To avoid gaffes such as BP’s social media debacle, marketing directors are getting smarter about using tools like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to their advantage – even if they cannot always control the message. Social media strategies can be even more effective once they move outside of the marketing department and start quantifying results, said Steve Nicholls, UK-based author of Social Media in Business. “Companies need to think about how to use social media to gain competitive advantage,” explained Nicholls, whose clients include British Telecom and Ciena Corporation.

Communications professionals should focus on a few social media platforms, rather than tackling them all. “What works for one company won’t work for another,” said Nicholls. For example, encouraging public Facebook comments for a company such as a financial institution “where customers hate their guts” can magnify complaints, he added. Many of those companies are better off growing their presence on LinkedIn or Google+ where comments are less prevalent.

Riley Meredith, corporate marketing manager at Las Vegas-based Bally Technologies, uses a combination of Twitter and Facebook to interact with users of his company’s slot machines, but avoids photo-based platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram. “Showing someone a picture of a slot machine every single day is probably going to be a little tedious,” he admitted. Instead, tweets highlighting the daily jackpot winnings of players on their slot machines around the world tend to be shared by the company’s followers. Ultimately, having brand recognition among gamblers enables sales of Bally’s machines on the casino floor, Meredith said. Recently, he has started tracking site referrals from social media channels and evaluating the most successful posts to help re-focus Bally’s strategy. “One of our mistakes was not setting goals on what we’re trying to do.”

Talking to consumers
Providing interesting content via social media means senior executives and business owners will click on your website and consider the product, said Donna Parent, vice president of marketing at software maker Aternity in Westborough, Massachusetts in the US. Companies investing more time in social media say it helps them speak to consumers in ways that email marketing campaigns, print advertising or attending trade shows do not. “It’s not all about [the product] we’re pushing,” Parent said.

Surprisingly, small contests to ramp up corporate followers on Twitter and “likes” on Facebook can also be effective in helping increase their corporate presence online, say social media executives. But creating contests on a global level via social media is difficult, allowed Bally’s marketing manager Meredith. Last year, the company sponsored a giveaway granting the winner “Celebrity for a Day” status, which included winning a deactivated slot machine for their home as part of the promotion. But as contestants entered via Facebook from as far away as China, the company realized the machines couldn’t be legally shipped. The contest “got a lot of pushback from people who couldn’t participate,” said Meredith, who now focuses on more local contests promoted with individual casinos.

More than “likes”
The biggest mistake that marketing executives make is using social media to speak to consumers, rather than integrating strategies further into their business model, said Nicholls, who works with multinationals on getting the most out of social media. For example,, the cloud-computing giant, uses videos to communicate to customers while posting almost 900 of them to YouTube. Not only do some videos become viral, but potential customers do not need to visit the Salesforce website to learn about the product, he explained.

Realizing the potential of LinkedIn for reasons beyond hiring purposes, Parent, Aternity’s vice president of marketing, created a LinkedIn group which includes almost 1,500 experts and promotes conversation about the members’ needs in the mobility sector. “I’ve found ways to talk about things that are important to them,” she said, adding that the opinions shared via LinkedIn help the company further customise its software.

Experimenting with emerging social media technologies like Vine or even Google Glass can give marketing executives a head start when communicating with some of their savviest customers, said Nicholls. While many firms already appear on Twitter, it is important to tap into the newest opportunities early on. “These are the things that CEOs should be worried about,” he added.

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