Staying on Message

How companies are leveraging social networking sites to their advantage

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Alumni connections

Using Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn gives organizations a way to meet people "where they are," says Alisa Robertson, assistant dean for alumni and corporate relations at the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin -- Madison. The school is using all three sites to establish a robust two-way dialogue with its 36,000 alumni.

The university's Facebook presence is geared largely toward a younger audience and is used to promote events, relay news and in general create what Robertson describes as a "warm and nostalgic" feeling about the school among alumni.

LinkedIn, meanwhile, has enabled the business school to locate "lots of lost alumni," Robertson says. The school has created several subgroups and affinity groups on LinkedIn to make it easier for alumni to connect with one another.

"It's just an incredible Rolodex on LinkedIn. It's a great way to find people," Robertson says. Unlike the business school's Facebook page, its LinkedIn presence is decidedly more professional and is used to promote resources like career help and job opportunities.

The business school's use of Twitter, on the other hand, is purely about extending its PR reach. "We do whatever we can on Twitter to promote faculty research or announce some big research finding," Robertson says. "This is really where we try to get our message out to a broader audience."

Melissa Anderson, director of public relations at the business school, says the decision to leverage such social media tools was driven by some very simple logic. "We are outmaneuvered and outspent" by competing business schools, she says. "We don't have a lot of budget for marketing, and we don't have a prime metropolitan location."

What social media has done is to level the playing field somewhat, says Anderson. "It is not very expensive. It's been a way for us to communicate with a large number of people, and it has helped us tell our story."

Message matched to the medium

Enterprises looking to use social media need to understand the environment in which they operate, says Paul Gillin, founder of Paul Gillin Communications, a social media consulting firm. "When you use the tools, you need to use them in the spirit of the culture that has evolved around them," says Gillin, who is a former Computerworld editor in chief.

Often, that involves a higher degree of openness and transparency than a lot of companies might bargain for or be comfortable with, he says. It also often means resisting the temptation to view social media purely as a channel for pushing products and corporate messages, and treating it instead as an opportunity to have a more interactive dialogue with the target audience, Gillin says.

"The culture says you don't use them as one-way communication vehicles," whether they are blogs, social networking sites, wikis, or video- and photo-sharing sites, he says. "The unifying fact of social media is that there is a response mechanism involved."

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