Before the Coopr event on Thursday night (where I spoke in Amsterdam), I was talking to a local journalist about social media and its role among an executive team.

He asked me, “How important is it for the leader to be involved in using social media if they want their organization to use it?”

I said it’s extremely important and emphasized the value in leading by example.

Take, for instance, Richard Branson or Mark Cuban. They both run very successful organizations (both of them run more than one) and they both are active on the social networks. They don’t have someone tweeting for them, for instance, they do it themselves.

And, even though they are the chiefs of multi-billion dollar companies, they find the time to connect and engage with their fans, followers, and connections.

Outsource Social?

Right after that conversation, Howie Goldfarb and I had a similar exchange. He said it’s a shame organizations outsource all of their social media because when the relationship ends (and it always ends), the intimate knowledge of the people you connect with go away.

Sure, the fans, followers, viewers, listeners, and connections remain with the organization, but knowing that Sally stops by your restaurant as a special reward when she reaches her weekly weight goal or Ben has bought and donated several thousand bottles of your product to schools in Africa…that knowledge is gone.

You see, social media is just that – social – you are supposed to build relationships with real people out there on the interwebz. Yet most organizations, particularly business leaders, treat it as another way to broadcast about how great they are and ask people to buy.

Sure, you can outsource your social media and most of you should. But if you want intimate knowledge of some of your biggest customers? Those relationships should belong to you.

Lead by Example

Just like anything else, if you lead social by announcement (write a memo, say it will be done, and expect everyone else to do it), it won’t work.

The culture has to change in order to embrace the new way of building those relationships, understanding the nuances of your most enthusiastic fans, and actually making money from the effort you spend online.

Just like you would with any other culture change, there are four things to consider:

  1. Make expectations explicitly clear. Why are you spending time on the social networks? What do you hope to achieve? What are the goals? Are they truly measurable (and I don’t mean more fans, followers, and connections)? Define your expectations in something that is objective, not subjective.
  2. Hold everyone accountable, including yourself. This is the “lead by example” piece. I know it’s hard. You don’t have time. You don’t care what someone had for lunch. I’m asking you to stop thinking about it that way and spend just 15 minutes a day having a real conversation with just three to five people who are commenting in your Twitter stream or on your Facebook page. Just 15 minutes.
  3. Be a consistent role model. See number two. No excuses.
  4. Connect with employees and customers daily. The awesome thing about social media is you can do this without ever leaving your desk (though it is advisable to talk to your employees face-to-face). Ask them how’s it going. Ask them what they like about working with you. Ask them what they don’t like. Gather some great intel by having those real conversations you started in number two.

It’s not easy. We expect to be able to hand off social media and be done with it. But if you want it to work, and if you want to make money from it, you have to be involved.

A version of this first appeared in my weekly Crain’s Chicago Business column.

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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