Center of Gravity: What’s the Best Way for Your Business to Manage Social Media?

===== This article originally appeared in the December issue of The Social Media Monthly, the first print magazine focused on social media. We are sharing it here with permission from Bob Fine. Look for more articles and extended case studies from The Realtime Report in future editions! =====

REI social media strategyThis summer, retailer REI assigned tweeting duties to local staff in the 53 markets where it operates stores. “Bad local experiences already get national attention,” said REI’s Jordan Williams in a tweet. “But this means local teams can more likely make a bad experience better before it goes national.”

Whole Foods Social Media StrategyWhole Foods reached the same conclusion even earlier and now has more than 200 company accounts on Twitter.  Like REI, local Whole Foods stores stock and promote different items from city to city so someone at headquarters in Texas isn’t best equipped to handle local queries in Baltimore. Plus, having local accounts is in keeping with Whole Foods’ culture of local empowerment.

When companies first began using social media to connect with customers, most large corporations viewed it as a marketing tool that needed to be tightly controlled from headquarters. Lately, however, many companies—with retailers leading the way–are beginning to trust their far-flung troops with the power to speak for the brand on social media.

Radioshack rolls out "local responsibility" as part of social media strategy“While we’re focusing on national, we’re working on a plan to roll out local responsibility,” says Adrian Parker, Social Media Director at Radio Shack. “We have 35,000 associates, and having 35,000 people talking positively about your brand and your products can really expand our reach.”

That’s a major change. When Parker was hired two years ago he was the first person allowed to participate in social media on behalf of the company. “There was a certain kind of fear and trepidation in unleashing social media without knowing who was accountable within the company,” he says.

Starting this fall, Radio Shack plans to create a “Social Ambassador” program by assigning a dozen to two dozen of what Parker calls its “rock star” employees around the country to get active in social media. They’ll be given two days of training and then asked to participate in social media conversations on various channels and blogs.

Home Depot created in-store, local social media associatesSimilarly, Home Depot created a new category of employee it calls social media store associate. It selected 25 of its most senior store employees in four regions (Atlanta, Orange County, Chicago and Boston), put them through training, taught them how to make their own videos using inexpensive Flip video cameras, and turned them loose.

Surprisingly, that idea came from Home Depot CEO Frank Blake. “Originally we were going to centralize the project and staff up my team to manage this, but he said we should use our best resources and leverage what we have in our associates,” says Brad Shaw, Vice President of Corporate Communications at Home Depot.

So Shaw changed directions and started looking among the company’s most experienced store employees for his new social media team. The ones selected have an average tenure of 10 years with the company and are experts in their own product area.

With handles like SteelToes, PaintPro, Lawn Ranger and Designingwoman, they work three days a week as sales associates in the stores and spend two days a week on social media. For example, a customer might go to the company’s community forum on its website and ask how to strip old wallpaper off a wall. Within a couple hours, the social media team will respond, often posting solutions that include videos or drawings to explain techniques. They’ve handled questions in more than 2,000 topics. The community is open to everyone. Sometimes the first or even the best solutions come from Home Depot customers.

“The content is pretty rich. It’s just like walking into the Home Depot and finding a 20-year associate with the knowledge you need to help with your project,” Shaw says. The social media associates are restricted to working within Home Depot’s own community website, however. When it comes to speaking for the company on social media, Home Depot handles that from headquarters.

“With 300,000 people, it’s hard to say you can’t do social media so we have a standard operating procedure that says it’s okay to engage in social media channels as long as you follow certain rules,” Shaw adds. They can express opinions, but can’t speak for the company, need to identify themselves as employees and must uphold the company’s values.

McDonald’s employs a similar hybrid approach. It manages its Facebook, Twitter and other social media channels from headquarters. But it also has trained some of its field marketing teams in various regions to get involved in social media.

Rick Wion, McDonald's Director of Social Media“The whole balance of local and national marketing is something that McDonald’s has done successfully for decades,” says Rick Wion, Director of Social Media at the huge international restaurant chain. For instance, if the company rolls out a national promotion for a new menu item, that news will be sent from HQ. But if a local region has a special promotion, that will come from the local social media staff.

But McDonald’s guidelines tell the local franchisees not to engage in social media. “The return on investment just isn’t there,” Wion says.

Worries about the loss of brand identity still prevent other companies from loosening control of social media from corporate headquarters. That’s the case, for example, at both Hardee’s Food Systems and Discovery Communications.

Hardees social media strategy“Everything is mandated and directed from the corporate level,” says Jenna Petroff, Public Relations and Social Media Manager for Hardee’s, which operates a chain of fast food restaurants in the Midwest and Southeast. “I’m the only person allowed to tweet. We don’t allow other branded handles because that would be confusing to our followers. We’re very vigilant about making sure no one is putting anything out that would distract from our brand.”

Discovery Communications, which operates dozens of worldwide television networks such as the Discovery Channel, Animal Channel and TLC, also prefers the centralized model.

“It works very well for us because it allows the team to do a lot of best practice sharing across our team members,” says Gayle Weiswasser, Vice President, Social Media Communications at Discovery Communications. “But even though we’re in one central team, we’re all operating very independently on behalf of our clients at the various networks.”

Discovery CommunicationsShe assigns team members to work closely with each of the networks, attending production and marketing meetings so they can work closely on the networks’ plans for shows and promotions. While the Facebook and web pages are created centrally, they vary widely. The social media promotions for a show like “What Not to Wear” on TLC will be rather lighthearted, while the tone will be much more serious for “How It’s Made” on the Science Channel.

“The networks have become comfortable with this approach,” Weiswasser insists. “Frankly, they’ve got a lot going on in marketing and communications so it would be difficult for them to manage all these digital and social media pages.”

Taking responsibility for social media centrally generally makes good sense when it comes to customer complaints. Thus, most companies follow that model, which enables them to speak with one voice and ensure that customer issues don’t fall through the cracks.

“We use a tool like Radian 6 to monitor all social media from headquarters,” says Petroff at Hardee’s. “That way we know what’s being said about our brand and we can address any urgent needs right away.”

McDonald’s, Radio Shack and Home Depot agree and have dedicated customer care teams at headquarters to handle these types of issues.

No matter how the companies operate their social media channels – centralized or decentralized or a hybrid – they all say they are achieving a more than satisfactory return on investment.

“To take 25 people out of the stores two days a week is a very small investment,” says Shaw at Home Depot. “It’s hard to connect those dots, and I’m not sure we’ll be able to any time soon, but we know it’s having a positive impact just by looking at the comments from our customers.”

To measure its ROI on social media, McDonald’s uses a variety of metrics such as the number of weekly interactions, number of complaints handled, number of customer compliments received, etc. Sometimes after it has solved an issue, McDonald’s employees will send a handwritten note in the mail. Several hundred satisfied customers have taken photos of the notes and posted the images on Twitter.

“So we can demonstrate to our higher ups and the rest of the world that we’re listening and responding,” Wion says. “If we solve their issue and they follow up with praise for us, that’s another measure of ROI.”

Hardee’s doesn’t think increasing its follower base on Twitter and Facebook is a good measure of value unless it’s part of an expansion of the brand’s locations into a new region. But it carefully monitors other measures, such as coupon downloads offered via social media. Recently the company hired a digital marketing agency to help expands brand interactions with customers.

“I don’t think my CMO would have allowed us to hire a social media agency if we weren’t getting an ROI,” says Petroff.