Social media can be a powerful marketing tool. But used the wrong way, social media sites can have a negative impact on your business -- costing you goodwill and prospective customers. So how can you create a positive impression of your business and/or your products on popular social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ -- and avoid potentially costly social media blunders? CIO.com asked dozens of social media experts and managers to find out. Here are their top 15 picks for the most common social media mistakes businesses make and how to avoid them.
1. Not having a social media policy. "Companies who fail to provide guidelines for how their employees should conduct themselves online are dealing with a ticking time bomb," says Brandon Harig, social media strategist, Identity, an integrated public relations firm.
"By establishing expectations of how employees represent themselves online, both during work hours and after, brands not only help educate their staff on potential problems, they create a fallback when someone goes too far," Harig says.
2. Treating all social media sites as if they are the same. "Each social media channel has its own language, customs and audience," explains Simon Tam, founder and director of Marketing for The Slants, an Asian American dance rock band. So before you start using Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn, "it's important to learn how people communicate and share on that particular network."
"Many businesses simultaneously blast the exact same message across Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, etc. not realizing that this comes across as fake, impersonal or spam-like," adds Raj Kadam, the cofounder and CEO of Viralheat, a social media marketing suite. To avoid coming across as fake or like a banner ad, "businesses should make the effort to understand how each individual platform works and tailor their messages and content to be platform specific."
3. Not making the most of your social media bio. "On many social media platforms your bio is the first thing that someone will see," notes Hailley Griffis, a social media engagement specialist at ReSoMe (Relevant Social Media). So "be sure to include your location and website [URL] -- and be creative with the bio," if you can, she says. "If people don't know what your company does... give them a good reason to [follow or like you]."
4. Using social media as a megaphone. "Social media isn't simply a megaphone for your brand, it's a two-way street -- hence the 'social,'" explains Thom Fox, chief idea architect at consulting company the BrunoFox Group. "If you're going to do social media... dedicate personnel to monitor engagement; create an editorial calendar to generate conversations around promotions; and most importantly, be human," he says. "Interaction builds loyalty, and loyalty translates to sales."
5. Focusing on quantity of followers instead of quality. "Some companies are willing to do anything to get more followers, fans or likes from buying followers to staging a fake Twitter hack," says Dave Hawley, senior marketing director of SocialChorus, a provider of advocate marketing solutions. "The problem is, likes don't equal sales."
The solution: "Focus on quality over quantity. It's more valuable for a company to have 100,000 highly engaged advocates than 1,000,000 followers or fans," many of whom have zero interest in your brand or may not even be real, Hawley says. "A quick [or fake] fan isn't going to translate into more sales, which is why brands should focus on building loyal, lifelong fans and followers who will become brand advocates."
6. Over-posting and posting inappropriate content. "Although it's important to get your message across on social media, too many posts can lead to 'unlikes' and 'unfollows,'" reports Nicolle Hiddleston, social media manager, Saatva Luxury Mattress. So take the time to find out when your fans and followers are most likely to be online and post judiciously, say several times a day as opposed to several times an hour every hour.
Moreover, "instead of posting for the sake of it, companies should actively listen to what their audience is interested in and post relevant content that is up to date and that sparks meaningful interaction," Hiddleston says. Similarly, while "a cute meme or gif is funny every now and then, [each] should be used sparingly."
7. Newsjacking. "Newsjacking is a sexy term that means stealing mindshare from trending news or an event," explains Stacey Miller, social media manager at cloud marketing provider Vocus. So "exercise caution before inserting yourself into the conversation. Without evaluating the implications, your company risks looking insensitive or ignorant, which can [harm] your reputation."
8. Not monitoring social media for suggestions, complaints or questions regarding your business or products. "Customers are talking about you online, whether you like it or not," says Adi Bittan, the cofounder & CEO of OwnerListens.com, which helps businesses avoid negative repercussions of social media. If you have a Facebook page and/or Twitter handle, "customers assume and expect you to be monitoring [them]," she says. "If no one is listening or acknowledging customer posts, customers assume you don't care."
9. Deleting or ignoring negative comments -- or responding in kind. "Any company that uses social media for marketing purposes today cannot afford to delete or ignore negative comments," states Gloria Rand, an SEO copywriter and social media consultant. "It only makes matters worse," she says. "Best to apologize (even if you haven't done anything wrong) and offer to contact the person by email to work out the problem. A simple acknowledgement of a problem can prevent a potential PR nightmare -- and often makes the customer so happy, the company gets a PR boost instead!"
"It's important to keep your cool and stay professional, even in response to an unfounded and highly personal attack," agrees Aaron Hollobaugh, vice president of sales and marketing, Hostway Corporation, a managed hosting, Web hosting and cloud hosting provider. "The worst thing to do is to respond in kind to [a negative] attack, which will only attract more attention to the problem customer and escalate the situation -- and [could] end up harming your brand and alienating customers."
10. Not responding quickly, especially to complaints. "When you create a brand presence on social media, especially on Facebook or Twitter, your customers are going to come to you there for customer service, whether you offer it or not," says Miller.
"Take too long to respond, or not respond at all, and the situation can turn into a public bashing spree," Miller says. "How to avoid a customer service nightmare: set guidelines for the hours you're present on the channel to answer questions, and quickly facilitate or answer all inquiries."
11. Posting too infrequently. "Social media marketing takes patience and persistence," says Rand. "You can't just post once a week -- or less -- and expect people to come flocking to your door to buy your products/services," she says. "If you don't have the time or commitment to devote to posting five to seven days a week, you might as well not bother and focus on more traditional advertising methods such as direct mail or pay-per-click ads."
12. Sounding impersonal or automated. "People use social media because they want to interact with other people, not with some unnamed, personality-free company rep," says Jenna Woodul, executive vice president and chief community officer, LiveWorld, a social content marketing company.
"Even if your social media handle is your company's name, introduce the folks that moderate it on your Profile or About page -- and let them include a tag so it's clear which messages are theirs," she says.
"A personal touch makes a significant impact," adds Stephanie Petelos, media representative, ProctorU, which provides secure online test proctoring. "It annoys people when responses are automated or sound too robotic -- and [that can cost you] followers," she says. "Making the extra effort to respond with a little wit can put a smile someone's face and leave a positive impression."
Just be sure that whomever moderates your social media presence is aware of your company's social media guidelines and understands that she is representing the brand.
13. Sending automated direct messages (DM) to all of your new Twitter followers. "This is really easy for companies to fall prey to because it seems too simple," says Griffis. "The problem is that people don't appreciate robotic, impersonalized messages, which usually result in unfollows," she explains. "If you want to increase traffic, give people a reason to follow you by providing value and creating conversations," not sending them automated DMs.
14. Overusing hashtags. "#Everyone #Hates #This #StopDoingItOMG," writes Sarah Bradley, the head of social media at Receptional, a Web marketing consulting company. "Instead of piggybacking a trend or keyword that might not bring you any additional interaction, think about why it is you want to use a hashtag," she says.
"Do you want to show up in as many streams as is humanly possible within the character limit? Or would you like to engage with a demographic on their level?" Bradley asks. "If there a global trend that is getting everyone talking that you can contribute to rather than barrage with meaningless and shameless promotion of your business, you'll find that your online reputation improves and people will trust what you have to say more."
15. Not including a measurable call-to-action in social media posts. "Include short links to a resource, Web page or blog post in your social media posts, something that can be measured," says Rebecca Otis, content/social media manager, Digital Third Coast , an Internet marketing company.
"Other engagement-driving calls-to-action to include are mentions or tags referencing a source or relevant social user -- tagging [being a] social media relationship-builder," Otis says. Also include "hashtags or keywords to make your posts more searchable and accessible by users outside your follower base." Just remember not to overdo the hashtags.
Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a contributor to CIO.com and runs a marketing communications firm focused on helping organizations better interact with their customers, employees, and partners.