It's conventional wisdom now that social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter are an important part of the marketing mix for almost any company, non-profit agency or other large organization.
And for some organizations, that can be a problem.
A foreign missions group which I serve as a board member wants to become more aggressive in reaching college students as potential volunteers. Our executive director realizes that requires a Facebook presence -- but she's not comfortable with social networking herself. She had signed up for a Facebook account only reluctantly, some months back, and when I set up a new Facebook page for the organization recently, I tried to search for her on Facebook so that I could add her as an administrator. We later determined that she had her Facebook privacy settings set so tightly that pretty much no one could find her.
The trouble with an arm's-length approach is that social networking has to be dynamic. Adding fresh content to a website is always the best practice, but a static, seldom-updated site can still function as a sort of an electronic brochure and have some value to the organization. Not so with social networking. If you're not going to put out fresh content, and check for comments from your followers, you'd just as well leave it alone. Social networking has to be dynamic to be of any value at all, and that means you have to keep on top of it.
You can't necessarily farm out that job to a more tech-savvy employee or volunteer, unless that person is close enough to the action to speak on the organization's behalf. If you're going to use Twitter as an avenue for customer service -- following the lead of @ComcastCares, the cable television giant's well-known Twitter account -- the person maintaining the Twitter feed must be in a position to get answers to questions and make contacts with others in your organization who can help solve problems. And you have to be clear about when the account is being monitored -- during office hours? In the evenings? 24/7? If your Twitter account is intended for customer service, it would be a good idea to include that schedule information in the box marked "bio" so that it will show up on your account's Twitter page.
And don't just look for messages directed at your Twitter username. Use a Twitter client which lets you set up a standing search or regularly check Twitter's search page (search.twitter.com) for mentions of your company, organization or industry in other people's tweets. You may find out about problems or opportunities you didn't know existed.
The good news is that, while you may have to set up a personal account in your real name in order to use Facebook, you can easily focus all of your attention on maintaining your organization's Facebook page and ignore the personal part of your account if that's your choice.
Do not, by the way, try to sign up for a Facebook account using your company's name rather than a real name. That's a violation of Facebook's policies and could in theory result in the account being shut down. Sign up for an account using your real name and then, while logged in to your personal account, scroll all the way to the bottom and click on "create a page." You can add or delete administrators for the page, as long as each of them has an individual Facebook account.
You have an incentive to build up followers for your organization's page on Facebook; once you reach 25 followers, you're allowed to set up a much easier-to-remember URL for your organization page, such as facebook.com/acmewidgets.
Twitter is a little easier, because you can set up an account in the name of your business right from the start, without worrying about a personal account.
Even if you have no interest in personal use of social networking, using it for your business or non-profit doesn't have to be intimidating. Just remember to keep putting out fresh and useful content. Be courteous, and above all professional, but you may find that people expect you to be a little more casual and friendly in a social networking feed. Don't word your status updates the same way you would word an advertisement. Comment on developments in your industry, even if it means mentioning the names of your competitors. Ask yourself what your customers would find interesting or useful, and let that drive your social networking efforts.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.