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6 Ways Hesitant Leaders Can Embrace Social Media

6 Ways Hesitant Leaders Can Embrace Social Media
Credit: Gonzalo Aragon/Shutterstock

According to the Pew Research Center, digitally native millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. labor force, and outside of work, they represent $200 billion in annual buying power. Simply put, smart business leaders must get comfortable on social media if they want to engage in successful internal communications with their employees and successful external communications with their customers.

True social leaders like Richard Branson and Elon Musk understand the importance of social media and have millions of followers to show for it. Yet there are other senior business execs who outsource this critical task to entry-level marketers – or skip it altogether.

In his 2014 book, "A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive" (AMACOM), Mark Babbitt, founder of the young professionals' social community YouTern, highlighted three types of leaders who've yet to take the social media plunge: the doubter, the broadcaster and the superior.

  • The doubter still doesn't believe social media is here to stay. Instead, this leader sees social as a fad and a waste of both the leader's and the organization's time. While other industry competitors use social strategies to build communities and create brand ambassadors, the doubter's company misses out.
  • The broadcaster hasn't fully grasped the power of social. While this leader is comfortable using social networks, he or she participates in one-way communication – putting out content but failing to engage with and listen to the company's followers.
  • The superior is ruled by ego. This leader feels invincible and believes that the rules of social media don't apply to him or her. Leaders like this mistakenly think that their executive status can protect against public backlash if they say something controversial or insensitive, but they are quickly corrected when such incidents occur.

"If this was 1999 or 2000, we might be talking about whether a leader needs to get on email and understand how email works," said Ryan Holmes, founder and CEO of the social media management dashboard Hootsuite. "We all know now that if a leader doesn't understand email, he's kind of a dinosaur facing obsolescence. [Similarly], social media is a key tool that all leaders need to have in their toolkit."

When leaders avoid social media, the impact doesn't just fall on the companies they run. By failing to engage with the public at large (even those who aren't direct customers), business leaders miss the opportunity to become established thought leaders and build personal brands outside of their businesses.

"You, as an individual and a leader, can go places that your company's brand cannot," said Holmes. "The New York Times is not going to accept a contributed article from Virgin, but if Richard Branson wanted to write an article, they'd take it. And that's because it's him, not the company. People want to hear from people."

With all this in mind, Holmes wrote "The 4 Billion Dollar Tweet: A Guide for Getting Leaders Off the Social Sidelines" (Maple Syrup Mafia Publishing, 2017). Inspired by a Donald Trump tweet that triggered a $4 billion single-day plummet of Lockheed Martin stock after company leadership failed to respond, Holmes' book is the busy leader's pocket guide to social media.

Serving as the foundation of the book are Holmes' Six Pillars of Social Leadership, designed to get wary business executives off the sidelines and into the social media game as quickly and effectively as possible:

A "personal touch is key in social media," said Holmes, but he acknowledges that few leaders have the time to effectively engage on social media on their own. He recommends leveraging a socially savvy mentee, an in-house communications team, or even a third-party social media management company or consultant for help in determining overall strategy and high-level initiatives. But, adds Holmes, "social media is not something you can pass off to your marketing millennials and expect that they can control and manage it. It needs leadership."

Should you be irreverent on social media? Humorous? Informative? Determining the audience you want to reach and what change you want to provoke will help shape that voice. Seeking insight from an outside perspective (see Pillar 1) will help as well.

With the seemingly constant launches of new social media platforms, keeping up with all of them can seem impossible. And that's because it is. Instead, says Holmes, determine where your market is and choose the platform where it congregates most.

As a quick primer, Holmes says, "LinkedIn is a powerful B2B network; Twitter is the domain of the tech- and media-savvy; Facebook and Instagram have broad consumer reach; and Snapchat is dominant among teen users."

We've all heard that content is king, and that certainly applies to social media, whether you're sharing informative videos, industry insights or hilarious outtakes from your recent vacation. But there's more.

"The real key to success – and where most leaders fail – is simple consistency," Holmes wrote. "This can be as minimal as allocating five minutes a day, or even five minutes a week."

The surest way to make a social post go viral is to actually help drive traffic. Holmes recommends enlisting team members to share posts on their social media channels or paying a fee to have certain posts promoted on each social media network.

Aside from them being short on time, Holmes says that most social-averse leaders stay on the sidelines because they're afraid of making a mistake.

"The reality is that social leaders don't have a social net," he wrote. "The occasional slipup is par for the course. We all make mistakes, after all. What sets true leaders apart is willingness to own them."