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Social media changes the competitive landscape for midsized businesses

From Facebook to Twitter, companies are now using online social media tools to create an unprecedented dialogue with customers. While the opportunity for midsize businesses to connect with customers on a personal level may be a huge opportunity, it's not without risks. Between regulatory issues and the perceived loss of control over your brand, businesses may be reluctant to dive in. But not playing the social media game is an even bigger risk, argues Dorian Cundick, an executive advisor with the Communications Executive Council, an international corporate research and advisory services firm. In a recent Forbes article, "Social Media: Rules For Jittery Execs," Cundick says reluctant businesses—even those in highly regulated industries such as healthcare or finance—can have social media success by following a few simple guidelines.

Read excerpts from the interview below and listen to the podcast for the full interview.

ForwardView: How has social media changed the competitive landscape for midsize businesses?

Dorian Cundick: It's kind of an equalizer in terms of getting your voice out there. So it used to be in terms of connecting with key stakeholders, or connecting with certain customers, or having relationships with certain media outlets, it really helped to be a big hitter with a big budget. But now with social media, it kind of doesn't matter so much what size you are. What matters is: do you understand your stakeholders? Do you know what their needs are and really understand them? Are you able to strategically identify the important conversations that are going on, and figure out a way to become part of those conversations, and to be relevant in these conversations, and drive them back to you?

ForwardView: Why have so many businesses been reluctant to promote the use of social media internally, and how can they go about changing their culture to be more accepting of social media?

Dorian Cundick: I talk with a lot of organizations where there is simply a lot of resistance. So the common thing you hear from organizations that are more resistant is, "Well, we're different from other people. We're different from other companies." Or, "Our culture is more conservative." Or, "We have trouble getting buy-in from senior executives." So that tends to be one of the big reasons that we hear as I visit with communications teams. We talk to companies all the time about this, and I have yet to hear a horror story with internal social media.

ForwardView: In your article, you identify some principles for social media success. Can you briefly review these principles and why each one matters?

Dorian Cundick: If you do not have a social media policy in place as an organization, that is the very first thing you should do. That is something that will make your legal colleagues feel more secure. It will make you feel secure as you go out and experiment. Also, you really need to embrace the conversation. Social media is out there. People are out having conversations, our employees are out there having conversations, and they're going to talk about work because it's a big part of their lives. And so, we can pretend that we can boycott the entire social media space. We can pretend that we're trying to control it, but we can't. What is our option? We can either view social media as a threat to our organization and put ourselves on the defensive, or we can be strategic and wise about how we use social media, but at the same time view it as a tremendous opportunity to connect with stakeholders in much more effective ways than we've been able to do before.

ForwardView: What are some of the biggest mistakes businesses make once they begin to engage customers with social media?

Dorian Cundick: As with anything we do at the organization, we want to have a strategic approach, because if there isn't a good strategic reason to be playing in this space, why would we want to play in this space? Now, our guess is there's a 99 percent chance that there really is a good strategic reason. But figure out what that is for your organization, and what that looks like for you. In social media, you need to be very strategic in figuring out if the things that you're doing are actually having effect. So we want to be very careful about figuring out the measurement principles, instead of just going out and broadcasting to a million channels.

ForwardView: How does a midsize business know if its social media efforts are paying off or not?

Dorian Cundick: I think monitoring is going to be one of the big keys to that. The ability to monitor has gotten a lot more sophisticated and there are services that we can use for monitoring that are not only counting how many times our company's name is mentioned, or our competitor's, or our industry is mentioned. But it gives us context around how specific stakeholder groups are consuming information about us or interacting with our company. So the more context we can get in the monitoring, the more we're able to get a sense of how the things we're putting out there are altering perceptions, and traffic, and the way people are talking about us.

ForwardView: What are the risks for midsize businesses that don't make the move to social media?

Dorian Cundick: Whether or not to do social media is almost an irrelevant argument at this point because that's just the way people are communicating. Your employees are communicating through these channels. Your external stakeholders are commuting through these channels. So, social media is just kind of the way things are being done. I don't think there's any question of whether to participate or not participate, because we're going to be in that conversation whether we want to or not.

ForwardView: Once the criteria for success have been established, what should midsize companies expect to see as their social media plans grow and mature?

Dorian Cundick: I think the ultimate sign that you've arrived, in terms of being comfortable and effective with social media, is when you actually become a little less structured about it—where throughout the organization, we're simply comfortably and naturally working in social media channels as an integrated part of the way that we do business. When it's truly just an embedded part of how we connect with stakeholders, it's almost something that's second nature, and we don't have to have a big social media team running things at the organization. It's simply the way that we do business.

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