In a time when everyone from the pope to the Pentagon uses Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, government contractors have joined the masses and started using social media to find new means of reaching out to their customers and boost revenue.
It’s not just a kid’s realm anymore: Social media have saturated the corporate sphere, and many contractors strive to be at the forefront of this new technology. Lockheed Martin uses Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to share company news, photos and videos; Raytheon has two Twitter accounts dedicated to recruiting; and the U.S Air Force contributes to iReport and is on FriendFeed, Digg and Reddit.
“Social media can enhance anything–in real-life events, for example,” said Mark D. Drapeau, director of innovative social engagement at Microsoft U.S. Public Sector. “It’s just a tool; it can with enough creativity and risk-taking be applied to virtually anything. There are mobile food trucks in New York who use social media to broadcast their location for the day, and people line up to buy lunch.”
Thinking outside the box is nothing new for IBM. The corporation was an early adopter of blogs, wikis, podcasts and microblogs internally, and already in 1997 recommended its employees get out on the Internet, said Andy Piper, a consulting IT specialist at IBM United Kingdom and an IBM BlueIQ ambassador.
“By engaging in social sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, and by incorporating social and Web 2.0 technologies into IBM’s own sites, we can reach and engage with new and existing customers, and communicate our values and vision,” Piper said.”We use social media to learn, grow, collaborate, and of course to reach customers and to work with them more closely.”
While some corporations have become savvy in using social media, there are many others who have yet to follow. Drapeau said one major mistake some make in using social media is concentrating too much on tactics and not enough on strategy, as well as neglecting to answer the question of “what’s the business reason for doing this?”
“Another is not truly engaging their audiences; the Field of Dreams notion of build it–say it–and they will come–listen–generally doesn’t work,” he said. “Finally, there’s no playbook for this and a lot of social media is experimental; not empowering risk-taking is a mistake because it limits innovation.
In addition to using social media, companies should also monitor them, said Nicole Ellison, assistant professor at the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media at Michigan State University. Doing so can identify issues that may be problematic for a company, such as the Twitter backlash against the offensive 2008 Motrin ads.
But, as easy as it may seem to jump on the social-media bandwagon, there are a few things to consider, Ellison said.
“Social media cultivation doesn’t just happen,” she said. “Someone needs to monitor user-generated content, cultivate relationships among users, and produce content for Facebook pages, blogs, and other social-media applications.”
Ellison also added that “Individuals sometimes do not understand the true nature of the audience, and may inadvertently share content with people by mistake.” That is something the U.S. Air Force took into consideration when formulating its new-media guide. It states, “If you wouldn’t say it in front of your mother, you probably shouldn’t say it on YouTube.”
As the technology landscape continues to change, Piper said he sees social-media technologies taking their place alongside traditional interactions and enhancing the way in which humans interact.
“Telephone and email still remain important, just as face-to-face meetings and traditional mail retain their spaces,” he said. “Social media is just that: social. It’s part of the way in which humans have driven technology to enable them to communicate, create, share and collaborate. It reflects our own desire as a species to form communities and to connect with one another.”