Saturday, March 10, 2012

Social media strategies should rock your world

It's been a very, very long time since I posted here, despite multiple resolutions to get back to blogging. 2010 and 2011 were full, and they just didn't leave time. A UCL Master's, two weddings, lots of travel...and 2012 has thus far been about enjoying NOT doing a dissertation and two weddings.

But. The blog calls. And this week brought an issue about which I felt strongly enough to resurrect it.

I've spent the past few weeks looking at the social media strategies of various libraries and other cultural institutions (because although some libraries are doing a fantastic job, those outside the library world are just doing it so. much. better). It's become clear that many don't have a written strategy. And not having a strategy doesn't necessarily mean that an institution isn't doing a fantastic job.

But. And this is a big 'but' for me. There's been a bit of discussion on Twitter and blogs recently about how to approach social media in the library setting (and elsewhere - see this Guardian article on Brighton and Hove City Council and social media) - and whether having a strategy matters or not. I emphatically, with all my being, believe it does, and that everyone should have one, and that this type of thing is one area where libraries are way behind the corporate and business world.

I think there is some confusion about what a social media strategy can be. When I say strategy, I don't mean the type of strategy that says ‘only Mrs. Wiggles gets to Tweet and she does it once a day and you can’t alter that without going to eight committees’, but one that articulates why you’re doing what you do and how you see it benefiting your organisation. In fact, the strategy should ideally be a part of your whole organisation's communications plan. It's a purpose document, and it's basic marketing practice. If you don't do this, I don't think you're getting as much as you should be from your social media use. 

I've just finished drafting a policy on appropriate use for our organisation (and this is also important because a) it protects both you as a staff member and your organisation and b) some people need guidance on common sense, and a policy spells out what you mean when you say 'don't do anything stupid'), and I'm beginning to look at strategies so that we can work on our own. The fact that our organisation wants a strategy doesn't mean that I feel restricted. We've been on Twitter for ages and are revamping our Facebook page. Our staff have dozens of blogs, Facebook accounts and Twitter profiles. They're allowed to start them without jumping through hoops like circus animals; we encourage it. But writing a strategy, or deciding how social media fits into your organisation's overall strategy, forces you to address your social media use properly. It makes you think about what your goals are. It makes you examine your audience, and who you want it to be. It makes you think about how you want the various accounts across your organisation to work together. It makes you decide what material is appropriate - generally, without being too restrictive - and make sure that your social media content fits with the other content you create. It can help you decide how you measure success, because it needs to about more than just 'likes'. And it can help you decide how often you will readdress these goals, and what you will you do when they're not working. Thinking about these things should be empowering, not restrictive. It can mean producing something as specific as the BBC's excellent strategy document (which combines what some see as an 'appropriate use policy' with a wider strategy), or something that simply outlines an audience and a mission. You wouldn't design a website or launch a new service without determining what/who you're dealing with and what you want it to accomplish, so why are we so determined to approach social media without doing it?

I'm pretty sure that many good library social media users out there have thought about some of this already, even if they haven't set it out on paper. That's great. Now write it down. Otherwise what do you have to show your superiors when they ask why social media is important to your organisation (and why they should invest staff time in it)? Perhaps more importantly, how else will you explain to colleagues why and how you should work together to use social media in a way that fits in with the goals of your organisations rather than just their own team? It's especially important if you're in a large organisation - perhaps a university with multiple libraries and library projects that each want to use social media - because it ensures that you're all working towards the same goal. And even if you're a lone librarian with full control, it provides you with the opportunity to examine your social media use and decide how best to align it with the needs of your library.

I sense that the reaction against writing a strategy for something like this is a worry that a strategy will be limiting. I get this. I've heard from other librarians who have been required to write proposals and have four committee approvals get the picture. It defeats the purpose of social media when you are unable to act quickly and organically, or when you're so tied down that you're unable to respond to or keep up with the constant change that social media represents. If an organisation is requiring employees to jump through these sorts of hoops regularly,  I find it hard to believe that they really 'get' social media or will use it advantageously. A strategy needs to broad and flexible enough to cope with Facebook's new Timeline without going to a committee, and it needs to allow so-and-so in such-and-such department to start using Twitter without waiting three months for permission. It is not the place for writing out how you're going to make your Facebook page awesome by adding photographs; it is the place for explaining to the rest of your organisation why sourcing engaging content from expert staff members will help boost usage of collections. Reflecting on long-term communications and engagement goals is only going to help in the long run...

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