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This is an extension of my post from last month, on India’s Top 10 IT companies’ footprint on Twitter. Infosys and Wipro were the only two companies doing something on Twitter. While I’m not privy to what Indian IT companies may be doing in the social media, here’s what they could and should be doing, in my opinion.

Social media is perhaps the best mode to create and nurture branding, for IT companies. It can be viral and very appropriate for the target audience, who are, in almost all probabilities, IT savvy and mostly online.

While the Twitter post of mine perhaps demonstrates that most IT companies do not have a social media plan in place and are merely trying assorted things, it also showcases the fact that they’re actively trying to promote their brand name. This may not help in any specific way apart from asserting the fact that they too are on social media!

The best possible way for an IT company to start engaging with the social media is to become known or be associated for a particular topic relevant to the target audience. The TA could differ – so, while for recruitment, it could be techies; for marketing, it could be entirely different. Depending on the TA, the idea is to build credibility on a particular topic so that the company/ brand gains a reputation online, over time.

This is a slow process, but very feasible, if planned tactfully.

The choice of topic is critical here – if recruitment is the objective, a technology could come in handy, for example, a framework like Ruby on Rails. It would be useful to identify something which is relevant and is being buzzed by your techie crowd right now or is likely to be buzzed about them very soon. The method is to do all it takes, via social media, to spread the word about the potential use of the technology/ framework, without ever associating your company name anywhere. The association should be implied, never direct, through the expertise of the person or a group of people who initiate such conversation in social media.

The role of social media is that of a facilitator here – to facilitate spreading and helping a community, split across myriad social media tools and to learn about the chosen technology. Each social media tool brings in its own flavor of engagement – so, while a Facebook group offers interaction with the community in the form of a discussion board, video and audio files, a Twitter profile could act and start being the one stop source for updates on the topic.

This is a tedious process, no doubt. But think about the potential result – your organization, or a group within your organization becomes the face of a technology, if built carefully.

If marketing is the objective, select a business offering, say mobile technologies, for instance. The method here would be similar – research and list bloggers who track this technology and those who create original content on this topic. Add tweeters on the topic in your tweet profile.

Please do not jump into the fray announcing that you intend to be the one stop source for all things mobile technology – you’ll be ridiculed and ignored instantly. The technique is ‘giving’. Give out so much information about the technology – you deal with the technology as a business practice and are likely to have case studies too, right? – dig into that knowledge and build a reputation, online.

Infosys’ tweets showcase a variety of topics, mostly linking them back to their official blog, where they have a lot of people churning out content on an assortment of topics. While this is perfectly fine, my suggestion above is to perhaps pick 5-10 topics based on some criteria – potential for business in the next 12/24 months…?; need people with a particular skill in the next 12 months?…its up to you. But once you pick those topics, have teams/ people build online buzz, carefully, tactfully and without overtly involving your brand. Be seen as someone willing to learn, and willing to help and ultimately knowledgeable, based on the sheer amount of information shared/ given out.

Using twitter? Start a Twitter conversation stream (I know, lack of threads can be painful!) asking a relevant doubt or the future of a particular topic…be as specific as possible. Follow/ track tweets on the topic via TweetDeck’s search feature (this feature ROCKS and worth a tweetdeck download!).

Using a social networking platform? Do NOT start by creating a group…start by joining relevant groups and comment usefully for a period of time. Get to know the key members, moderators, original content creators, commenters etc. over a predetermined time line, say 3 months. Assimilate the data gathered over the 3 months and start interacting with individuals on a more personal basis by now knowing what interests them. You should ideally create a Facebook group (not for your company/ brand…we’re still on a ‘topic’ here!) at the end of say, 12 months of engagement and conversation online.

A few tips:

1. Select topics/ technologies – say 10, to begin with. Use a tangible objective to achieve, for this selection. For instance, if you/ HR could foresee the need for ajax experts (just riffing here!), there’s an objective waiting! Looking to increase revenues from your BFSI segment? Dig deeper and perhaps choose a specific stream within the BFSI vertical and choose that – BFSI is way too broad, in my opinion and will likely skid your efforts.

2. Choose people internally to act as subject matter experts. Chances are, your techies may already be part of many online groups, in an effort to enhance their employability quotient. Set up a meeting between the chosen experts and your social media consultant to debrief them on the key dos and donts. The top two (there are a whole lot more and any decent social media consultant could help you with them) includes,

a. Never hide the association with your company. Perhaps, have a standard disclosure statement on all your online footprint, but communicate the fact that the opinion is your own and does not reflect that of your employer (even though the entire thing is part of a larger plan – completely harmless and meaningful, of course)

b. Never throw your expertise around – act as a person with a strong opinion to offer, but be flexible and humble enough to accept that multiple right opinions can co-exist. Remember, you’re representing your organization here – the bigger your company is, the more humble you should be, for better impact and impression.

3. Work with your social media consultant on an activity calendar. This could be extremely helpful for time-starved techies. Get it drawn to minute details – days/ time periods drawn against select social media tools. It becomes easier to track progress this way.

4. Listen. Listen. Listen. And Listen. The social media consultant can not only help in strategizing, but listening is perhaps the most critical support function you can pay for. Ever. Demand to know the features and pricing of paid tools, before you settle down on free tools suggested by your consultant to keep costs low. Decide on who will listen and who will send you a de-brief – will you, as a client, listen? Or will your consultant organization listen and de-brief you every working day in an easy-to-assimilate format? Will they also highlight, for example, the top 3 places where you should be intervening/ commenting/ adding value, along with the tone and content for such comments? They better – this IS a social media consultant’s job. The actual content could be tweaked by you based on the nature of the conversation/ engagement – the tone and approach should be your consultants’.

5. What’s in it for your employees who participate? Explain this clearly for better buy-in. This could be either monetary or pride-based. After all, the association with your brand name and their expertise is the combination that gives them an edge. Could they do it without taking your brand, for identity? Sure, they already may be doing that! But, imagine the credibility they gain by tactfully throwing your brand name in the ring as their employer – sometimes even in a disclosure statement! Leading companies have a title – ‘Fellow’, that is assigned to subject experts/ pioneering individual contributors. Can your HR formulate a Fellow program for these participants at the end of the program? Think about how to keep them engaged and happy, throughout the program and after a formal program.

6. Once you zero-in on the topics, get your social media consultants to prepare a social media universe – the equivalent to what a PR agency does in the name of a media list. If they’re listing bloggers, ask them the criteria for selecting a particular blogger…why is he/ she better than another one not included? If they include a Twitter profile – demand to know the basis. Also, make sure they include message boards/ discussion forums/ social networking platforms too. Not just that…ask for star members within these boards/ forums/ platforms who are worth the engagement. On what basis will they be ranked/ judged? Over what time frame? A decent social media consultant should be able to prepare profiles of such people that include the minutest details of how they like to be contacted – email? direct message? tweet? phone? comment?

Now, for a post 12 month scenario. So, you have (assuming) 10 mini-teams working on 10 different topics within the social media – this is positive infiltration – now what?

Get back to your objectives. And start working towards them within your community. Recruitment a necessity now? Spread the word to the community and your followers â?? but no direct job offers online. Focus on the opportunities and the culture. If your organization can help you be a subject matter expert on its behalf in the social media, that is a culture really worth highlighting.

Increasing revenues on your mind? Mildly tweak the tone and nature of your conversations – if they were ONLY helpful, participative and curious initially, subtly add clues on how well your organization is geared to support a particular vertical or streams within a vertical. Has your organization done anything worth noting recently within the domain? Client wins? Solved a tough problem for a client? Add them in your conversation by making sure that they are contextually appropriate.

If you’ve done the job right for the first 12 months, without forcing either your brand or your expertise, chances are that your ‘extra’ messages will be taken in the right spirit and start to bear fruit.

Driving PR via social media specifically for IT companies is quite different in my opinion, as compared to say, a FMCG brand. Thereâ??s a lot more to offer in a consumer brand that can come in handy in a social media PR strategy, while IT companies have very specific needs and offerings â?? mostly people and knowledge, respectively.

As always, these are just my opinion on how IT companies could start a social media PR program. What do you think? Iâ??m more than curious to know.

PS: I do realize that there’s a discussion online on whether social media engagement should be outsourced or handled internally. As reflected above, I’m of the opinion that it should be outsourced, but it remains a highly participative activity with full cooperation and hands-on involvement by the client. The strategy and listening are the two parts where a consultant brings immense value based on his/ their understanding of this medium.

Picture courtesy: pattn via Flickr

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