A Social Networking Sandbox

Written Aug. 24, 2009 by Tom Webster in Social Networking + Technology with 0 Comments

I'm often asked by some of our radio industry readers how to get started with social networking and learn the ropes, so to speak, of connecting with listeners online. I'm far from an expert--and, at this stage of the game, I'd distrust anyone who says they are!--but I can share one thing we've done here at Edison that has proven more successful than I initially hoped.

The tactical "hows" of social networking are easy, and chances are many of you already know them--I see you on Facebook. There are also the strategic "hows" (and the "whys") that are not so obvious. Engaging listeners online, whether it's through social networking sites or even through blog comments, requires a certain level of transparency and committed participation to really work. That "transparency" can't be faked--if you don't have it, you can't play the game. Letting your listeners in on the processes--music meetings, programming decisions, coverage of local issues--all has to come before you can start talking the transparency talk.

One way to dip your toe into that kind of transparency is to start with a sandbox--a protected environment, behind your firewall, in which to "practice." Today, especially with the rampant morale problems many budget-crunched radio stations are experiencing, internal transparency is equally important to (and a prerequisite of) external transparency. As managers, you know the importance of effectively communicating policy changes, layoffs and other realities of broadcasting in 2009 to the troops--but one-way communication is so two-thousand-and-late. If you are not ready to have employees--air talent, sales talent, promotions, etc.--touch your decision-making process, then you aren't ready to engage listeners either.

Many stations do this through email, but email is actually a poor place for this sort of communication--CC and BCC are poor proxies for dialogue, messages have to be duplicated for various responses, and email repositories are private, ephemeral entities that vanish when employees do. Here at Edison, we've been experimenting with a kind of private Twitter, an enterprise microblogging service called Socialcast. If you are currently posting to Facebook, you know how to use Socialcast--basically, it's just a protected, company-only social networking site to which employees can post short status updates, files and links--and comment on the posts of others.

I wasn't sure how this would work at Edison, but so far I've been very encouraged. It's become a great source for learning about what others are working on, sharing resources to help with projects, and even the odd funny video or two (if you try and restrict the communication, you basically put up barriers to usage). All of the wisdom, resources and knowledge that used to walk out the door at 5:30 is now stored online, tagged and searchable by future users. It's less intrusive than IM, more "social" and mine-able than email, and it's just fun to use.

Depending on your management style, you might find your employees are more or less willing to express their opinions about the day-to-day operations of your station, group or cluster. But it's a first step. In the process, you'll do more than simply improve employee relations and retention of company information, you'll also identify the "sharers" in your organization--the folks who might best represent your station AND your listeners in more public forums. The talent is there--you probably already have people in the building who know all you need to know about social networking--it just needs to be identified, encouraged and trusted. Sandbox services like Socialcast are great for all three.

Finally, a personal note--there are a lot of "gurus" out there in social media, but no one can manage your online reputation and engage listeners better than you. Social media is about sharing, not broadcasting. This post has been about something that worked for us, I hope it works for you. And if you've found something that works for you, share it here in the comments or connect with me on Twitter. If this blog is not about you, then we're doing it wrong.

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