Yesterday, I received an email chain from a colleague in another department. In it he was seeking my counsel, as is often the case, on how to increase visibility for a new service. In the email trail was a message from a senior executive: “Tell Miguel to Viral This.”

(While I won’t name the executive, I should emphasize that this person is a highly capable and well respected member of the management team. But a social media strategist she is not.)

Although the company I work for has made great strides in the world of digital marketing and social media in particular, the path to enlightenment is a marathon and not a sprint. This is a new age and most executives still struggle to understand how social media works and how it impacts a company’s sales and marketing strategies.

Here is a list of common mistakes the members of your company’s senior management are most likely making today:

1. They treat social media like a free bulletin board

Most senior executives look at your company Facebook page and its thousands of followers, and think, “Oh wow! Free media!!!” The difference between social media and other interruptive media like television or print is that your messages are too easily switched off. A consumer can “Unlike” your page or “Unfollow” your Twitter handle with a simple tap or mouse click. So unless your content is truly compelling, it will be ignored.

In addition, only a tiny fraction of your followers will even see your post organically, unless you bolster its reach with paid media. (This has been especially true of the last several months as companies like Facebook seek to increase their ad revenues.)

Read about how brands like SingTel use Content

The good news is that while consumers will avoid crap advertising, they will welcome and even seek out good content. Every video, image or article you post must pass the crucial “Why will they care; why will they share?” test. If your content is entertaining, able to elicit a laugh or other strong emotional response, not only will the audience sit through it, they will also share it with their network of friends.

2. They haven’t defined what they want to achieve from social media

Unless they have been living in a cave, “We have to be on Facebook!” is a decision many top executives will have made by now. But what happens after the page is created is often not properly thought through.

Is the objective of the page to drive sales? Or improve customer experience? Or to gather feedback? Or change the perception of your brand? Or, as is the case in service industries like telecommunications, offer customers an alternative Customer Support channel? Very importantly, how will the success of your social media channel be measured?

These are important questions to answer before investing in your social media presence. And you can’t provide a good answer unless you’ve thoroughly understood the question.

3. They don’t empower the social media team

Too often, the management of a brand’s social media channels are relegated to a relatively small part of the Marketing or Corporate Communications team. In many cases, the management of such platforms are outsourced entirely to an external agency.

If a social media strategy is to be successful, it needs to have backing at the very top of the organization, ensuring that its objectives are tied to the company’s business objectives. Senior management, in turn, has to empower the social media team to make day-to-day content decisions or take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

There has been much praise for Oreo’s “Dunk in the Dark” Super Bowl tweet, for example, because of the speed and agility displayed by that brand’s social media team during the biggest live TV event of the year. Similarly, SingTel’s partnership with Singaporean comic Hossan Leong to promote 4G is also considered a good case study for real time marketing. Today’s media environment moves in real time and success comes from having a team empowered to make quick decisions.

“Captain’s Blog, Stardate…”

4. They don’t use social media themselves

Despite the many opportunities of social media, many senior executives are hesitant to embrace it. Some even fear it outright. This is a behavior I personally find puzzling.

How can you leverage something if you don’t understand it? And how are you going to understand it if you don’t use it yourself?

Social media is actually a great platform to interact with customers, prospective customers and even fellow employees. Virgin’s Richard Branson, AirAsia’s Tony Fernandes and even Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong are among many high profile leaders who very openly (and very personally) interact with customers and the public through social media.

Likewise, many CEOs use social media as a means to discuss their management styles and personal philosophies, through Twitter or personal blogs. Importantly, such platforms are a great way to share a a company’s brand values or take a stand on relevant issues.

A 2012 study by TBWA revealed consumers would be more likely to purchase from a company and think more highly of a brand that supports a good cause. No wonder then that CEOs like Starbucks’ Howard Schultz are willing to take very public stands even on divisive issues like same-sex marriage.

Social Media is still very much the brave, new frontier for brands and companies. Companies daring enough are reaping the benefits, others are still stumbling to learn how. But all in all the learning curve could be smoother if senior executives had a larger appetite for risk and a curiosity to experiment.

Read What Makes Great Social?

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