The pre-panel meetingEvery so often something happens to bring a moment of clarity. Having literally just returned from New York (see The Digital Mission Blog), I headed to Coventry on Monday to the UKTI-organised Technology World 09 event. Aside from meeting UK and overseas delegates, I was there to speak on the keynote panel at the end of the day: “How can businesses use social media to create value.”

Far from the empty room I was expecting at the end of the day, the theatre was almost full. For a number of reasons the discussion was distinctly different than social media events I have spoken at recently: The audience were predominately business owners and investors, generally new to social media, and very focused on the business to business context.

The panel brought a very balanced tone, with views from both traditional and mobile agency perspectives, as well as more social media focused opinion. There were good questions from the floor – both via microphone and an SMS-based twitter wall behind us [thanks to mashup]  (which was very well behaved, with only one mention of my Movember tache). Topics included what social media actually is, how to get started, what the risks of social media are, what sort of returns a business should expect, and who should execute the strategy.

Pretty much the only bone of contention was about timing: When should a business get into social media? I am very much at the “Start now” end of the spectrum – the barriers are low and things are still at the stage where you can experiment and learn. Toby Constantine stuck a more cautious note: “Don’t feel that you have to rush in to it”. The UK Technology Live blog has a nice summary.

My closing remark was a suggestion for a three point “social media strategy” – I’ll expand on it just a little here – three things to get you started

1. Find your community

Building a community from scratch is hard, expensive and a long journey. It is better to find where the relevant community for you is already gathered, regardless of what platform they are on. Be there. Be it Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Xing or a Ning group. And when you arrive, remember: you are a guest in someone else’s space. Act accordingly. They say good manners cost nothing, but bad manners will cost you your reputation.

2. Add value

To paraphrase Flickr’s terms and conditions – you know that irritating person at networking events? Don’t be them! Rather than pushing your product or service, show that interacting with you is a pleasant and useful thing to do. Without showing off, answering questions and helping will demonstrate that you know your onions. Share your knowledge, ask about things you are genuinely interested in, provide pointers to useful resources and listen to responses. You’ll learn, and you’ll become a valued and valuable member of the community. Business will follow, I can almost guarantee it.

3. Make it part of your workflow

Leverage what you are already doing, and do it every day. For me it is mostly about Twitter these days, although I really must get back to more blogging. “Lightweight” activities that are not overly time consuming, provide a good return on effort and are enjoyable. If “doing social media” for your business is a chore, then you’re doing it wrong (the ‘it’ there might be your business or your social media)! Simply posting an observation, thought for the day, or the most interesting thing that you learnt that day is a great starting point, or maybe something you read reminded you of a related resource or tip – share it.

Let me know how you get on!