Developing a social media policy

Small businesses and freelances in all industry sectors are frequently urged to ‘get into social media’ to help promote their services and businesses. It can certainly be beneficial, and it can be fun; but if you don’t watch out, it can take over your life. To avoid the pitfalls, you need a social media policy. This post is about how I developed mine. You can have a copy if you like, but be warned: there are no prizes for anyone who spots me dilly-dallying on Facebook outside my allotted schedule!

There are lots of useful online resources to help you take your first steps into the vibrant but potentially risky environment of social networking. For instance, just last week (16 May) the UK Cabinet Office, which overseas the ‘management’ aspects of government, published Social media guidance for civil servants.

Where this all began

In September 2011 I ran a half-day seminar at the SfEP Annual Conference on the theme ‘Keep on keeping on’. Here was my pitch:

‘Keep on keeping on’ is a highly interactive session for freelances who have been working for themselves for several years. We will cover: marketing, networking, training, professionalism and self-management.

Join SfEP colleagues to share experiences, pick up tips and give ourselves a collective pat on the back for hanging on in there. Guaranteed: no business planning; plenty of tea and sympathy.

The ‘plenty of tea’ was particularly important, but that’s a story for another day.

The part of the seminar that covered social networking was based on my own experiences, a very useful workshop I had attended (organised by the Federation of Entertainment Unions), and reading around the subject through various websites and a very handy book: Brilliant Freelancer by Lief Kendall.

Working through the options

I provided delegates with a worksheet that asked them to assess their usage of the following electronic networking options:

  • Email (mail shot)
  • Own website
  • SfEPline/McEdit* (or similar)
  • Blog
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Other

* SfEPline is a very useful private Yahoo chat group for SfEP members; McEdit is a Yahoo group for editors around the world who uses Macintosh computers.

For each of the channels they had to answer these questions:

  • Do you use this channel?
  • Do you use the channel for business or social purposes?
  • How often do you use the channel (weekly, daily, hourly!)?
  • Time needed/spent?

The final question is particularly telling: when it comes to social networking there’s a world of different between the time you really need and the time you actually spend.

Getting the balance right

The point of this form-filling exercise is that it quickly highlights where you are ‘investing’ your time and whether or not you are doing so wisely.

But one person’s ‘wisely’ may be another person’s ‘wastefully’. My assessment is that there are four reasons to participate in social networking:

  1. Business development – finding work;
  2. Professional development – improving your skills and knowledge (i.e. CPD);
  3. Research – supporting your ability to complete the work;
  4. Personal development – participating in various support and ‘watercooler’ networks that are crucial for a freelance’s sanity!

It will be pretty obvious to anyone who is already familiar with social networking that it can be easy to spend a lot of time on 4 when you should be concentrating on 1, although the two things are not mutually exclusive (friendly freelances do pass on news of work available, for instance, and they are often extremely generous when it comes to sharing skills and knowledge).

Equally, for sole-trader freelances who can only realistically cope with a limited number of projects at a time, a few carefully targeted emails to potential clients may be a more efficient way of developing your business than spending countless hours trying to boost your Google ranking or Twitter profile by prolific blogging and tweeting, no matter what the ‘business experts’ may tell you. Each, of course, to their own, I hasten to add; it’s about getting the balance right for you. And bear in mind that traditional networking – such as word of mouth and being listed in reputable directories – remains crucial.

So, the idea of having a formal ‘policy’ is to ensure you are spending an appropriate amount of time on each activity, and also to set yourself some ground rules about online behaviour; it’s not about severing links with your Facebook chums. Even if you don’t want anything as formal as a policy, it is well worth taking an hour or so to think about what you are doing online and why – if you use a timer programme on your computer it can certainly be an eye-opener.

What to put in the policy

It need not be complicated or detailed.

  • List the channels you want to use;
  • Decide why you want to use the channel (some may have more than one function);
  • Note any guidelines about how you will use it (e.g. formal/informal tone);
  • Describe your intended frequency of use (e.g. high, medium, low*);
  • Set a date for reviewing your policy (once a year, perhaps).

* For me, this is more likely to work than specific targets – because as we all know, rules are made to be broken.

I’m happy to share my policy with you, if you’re interested. Please email me to request a copy (PDF).

Happy social networking