Is 2013 the year for business to get engaged?

By engaged, I mean are you ready to get serious with your relationship with your audience on social media? Are you past the dating phase? And do you think you are ready to handle the commitment of taking it to the next level?

By engaged, I mean are you ready to get serious with your relationship with your audience on social media? Are you past the dating phase? And do you think you are ready to handle the commitment of taking it to the next level?

Joking aside, it is time to get serious about using social media to engage your multiple audiences. But in order to take it to the next level, you have to have already begun your relationship. This isn't Las Vegas, where you get married the same day you meet someone – no matter how romantic it sometimes seems in the movies.

This is about sustained communications between you, your business, customers, admirers, followers, employees, those that may be interested in seeing what you are about, the media, government officials from multiple branches, and even your competitors. So you already have to have established presences on all the platforms where your audience is engaging – it means going to where they are, not where you want them to be.

Remember, in order to get engaged, you have to have been dating and already know each other.

For us at BAE Systems, this has meant a presence on Twitter to mainly reach those wanting quick updates on contract wins or posting or reposting articles we find of interest on the defense industry, defense policy, and community service or philanthropic activities performed by us and others.

With Facebook, we have found that our employees use it to stay connected with work issues when they are not in their offices, so we send and respond to issues like health benefits, upcoming company events, weather delays, and supporting our colleagues who may have suffered a loss due to a flood, etc. It is much more about being a community and engaging online in a manner we used to do face to face, but now can reach more of our own people online.

So the dating period is over. Now what? Where does it go from here? And how do we get there? This really is serious. It means you are putting yourself out there and it is risky. When you engage your audience, it means they may hear or see things they don't like or the reverse. There may be postings, comments, and suggestions on your corporate social media sites that are not necessarily what you would say about a topic. But that is actually the beauty of getting engaged. You are giving up control. You get to hear and see things you would not ordinarily have an opportunity to see.

I would also highlight that like in a real relationship, the goal is not just to bring two people together, but this “engagement” should bring about growth and positive change on both sides.

My first experience with this was at the Defense Department when we announced the new social media policy and I announced it on Twitter. I was surprised that a large minority replied to the announcement with caution and suggested that we were being too open in our communication. There ensued an open and transparent discussion on Twitter that ended with me changing the way I spoke then and now about using social media. I now always include the need to know the risks as well as the benefits of communicating online.

There is also the need to always remember that multiple audiences are watching and listening, that you need to be aware of what you can and can't say online (what those in the military call operational security or OPSEC). This is very important and something I didn't highlight prior to this exchange.

The challenge now is to move from using these new tools as nothing better than an updated blast fax and really push your company, organization, or group to engage its workforce and the multiple audiences that are paying attention or want to communicate.

Be creative. Don't simply push out press releases, but talk about what you and your company are doing. Ask questions and seek input from those who follow or “friend you.” Answer their questions on your products and services. There doesn't have to be an “announcement” being made to have a discussion. Your employees and customers have lots of interests and the idea is to somehow create a relationship that could be used in the future – whether to buy a product or support you and your brand if there is a scandal or supposed scandal.

Remember, I am only suggesting you get “engaged,” not married. This is not a final commitment. Take it one step at a time. The good news is that it doesn't take a huge investment of resources, so if you make a mistake, you can quickly adjust your tactics and continue.

Price Floyd is VP for global digital strategy at BAE Systems and former acting assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. Find him on Twitter: @pricefloyd.

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