Departments - January/February 2010

The Insider

Should You Be Using Social Media?

By Emily Tipping

ommunication is a critical tool to keep employees engaged, but with budgets cut across the board this past year, many are looking for new, innovative ways to communicate.

In fact, more than half (52 percent) of respondents to a survey last June from the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Research Foundation and Buck Consultants said their communication budgets had decreased, and another 35 percent said their communication staff had been reduced over the previous 12 months. Facing these reductions, the survey said, many employers are turning to social media to help keep their workforce engaged.

But while many are looking to leverage the social networks, the survey also revealed that 56 percent of top executives were not using social media at all. Nearly half (46 percent) were not measuring its effectiveness.

So the question is: Should you be leveraging the social networks to keep your workforce, your partners and your customers engaged? And what should you know before you begin?

Be Open to Change

Wait a second, though. Some businesses don't even allow their employees to connect to social networks from the office. A Robert Half Technology survey released in October 2009 revealed that 54 percent of companies do not allow employees to visit social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter, for any reason while they're at work.

According to Peter Hart, president and CEO of Rideau Recognition Solutions, that might not be a good idea.

"Any companies that don't allow it are going to face a challenge in the future," he said. "I wasn't fully convinced myself. We have 250 people here, and 60 work in IT. When I heard we would have LinkedIn and Facebook, I wasn't thrilled. But I rapidly came to realize it's a new method of communicating. If you're ahead of the curve and you use it from a business perspective, you'll soon realize there are a lot of opportunities to be had in it."

And not only should you be allowing your employees to use social networking sites. You should be leveraging them as tools, too.

"From a business perspective, absolutely professionals should be using social network tools," Hart said. "It's the way of the future. You can try to fight a tidal wave, or you can protect yourself against it, but it's coming. The kids coming out of school? These are the tools they communicate with."

So of the social media tools out there, who's using what? According to the IABC study, company blogs are the most popular social media tool in use today (47 percent), with discussion boards ranking the highest for future planned use (33 percent). Around a quarter of respondents said they use podcasts (29 percent), videocasts (28 percent), internal social networks (27 percent) and RSS feeds (24 percent). Popular social networking sites like Twitter, Yammer and Facebook see less use (21 percent, 20 percent and 18 percent of respondents respectively report using these sites), but many organizations are planning to expand their use of these tools in the future.

What makes these tools effective is their ability to create community across a company. And when your employees feel they are part of a community, engagement and retention improve.

Hart mentioned that companies create all kinds of programs meant to keep their best workers on board. You want your employees to feel like they're almost part of a family. This is why employee referrals are encouraged, why companies provide mentors to rising stars, why company softball teams take to the diamond every spring and summer. Social media tools are a way to extend that.

"This is just another tool that builds community, just like the softball team," Hart said. "It creates these ties within a company."

And in terms of engagement, when there is a joint task to be accomplished, a social network tool that provides a sense of community allows team members to communicate directly and to self-correct when necessary. "If one wasn't pulling their weight, you wouldn't need the boss to tell them. They'd be telling each other." The same goes for high-fives when the project is finished.