The hype is what often kills any effort to incorporate social media into a marketing plan; and the hype has been huge. Expect the initial wave to die down, as serious marketers get serious about social media as a tool to listen to and communicate with the customer.There are a lot of great articles on the web about social media; how to start it, how to convince the CEO you need it, how it is not a panacea for bad marketing; the list goes on and on. It’s getting a huge amount of attention and many people have developed strong opinions (read love/hate) about social media. Regardless of how you feel about it, it is a tool that needs to be as seriously evaluated as you would any new business initiative.The best way to evaluate social media is to make a business case for using it. Use your existing business plan as your cornerstone. There are two areas where you will focus your efforts: marketing and customer service. By targeting prospects and customers you will be better able to evaluate its potential for a meaningful impact on the bottom line. Let’s get started.Step 1: Do your HomeworkFirst get the facts as you would any new initiative. This will form your summary overview to present to others in your organization, if you decide to move forward.1) Gain a working understanding of the tools: Twitter, LinkedIn, Blog sites, Facebook, YouTube, SlideShare, Foursquare, Tumblr, etc. To monitor activity, popular tools are ViralHeat, Radian6, Spokesignal, etc. Each has its unique niche in the user community. Make sure you know the pros and cons of each. While I don’t normally recommend Wikipedia, it actually has a good section on application examples. Just wiki “Social Media” and you’re there. There are links from each example that provide more detail.2) Understand the trends as they pertain to your demographic. It’s easy to find. Nielson puts out quarterly reports on social media as do other agencies. Put together a couple paragraphs and a chart or two, just enough to prove to yourself that social media is real and is actually used by your target demographic. The latest Nielson report for Q3 2011 can be found on their website.3) Query at least 10 customers. This is key. Social media, used properly, is not about broadcasting commercials about your company; it’s about your customers. Talk with them. Where do they get their information? Would they visit a Facebook or LinkedIn group if you provided them with useful information or special coupons? What kind of information would they find useful? Make sure they are willing to join a LinkedIn group. Would they sign up for Twitter? Would they view a demo or training class over YouTube? This is important as you begin to build your communities. Users won’t connect if there is no value. You need to find the best way to encourage involvement.4) Conduct a quick check on your competitors. What social media are they using?Step 2: Insert Social Media into your Business PlanThis step is critical to assess the fit of social media within existing initiatives and to put it in its rightful place, alongside traditional tools.1) Highlight all areas of the plan that touch on communications with prospects and customers. This is where your social media entrance points will be. As an example:a. Customer communications: surveys, newsletters, focus groups, feed-backb. Prospect communications: advertising, press releases, trade shows, TV spots, radio spots, e-mail campaignsc. Although social media is not a replacement for any of these programs, it needs to be present along with these traditional communications tools so that it can be properly implemented and measured.2) In each of these areas, insert the best social media tool to compliment or extend existing communications tools.a. Example: As an extension to a newsletter sent to end users once a month, you might recommend a monthly WordPress blog, targeted to users. The blog can be set up to encourage responses and comments. It can be authored by one of your customer service reps or a technical person.Each new blog can be announced via a LinkedIn group that is set up for end users only. It can also be posted as a link from your website. The value-add is that now you have a “circuit” that encourages discussion and interaction, in place of a single one way newsletter event.Step 3: Create an Implementation PlanHow will the program be executed? Key is content, consistency and measurement.1) Decide who will own the social media program. This is not easy in that everyone should own this and there are many good articles that passionately make this point. The truth is that it is very hard to change the mindset of senior executives if they are wary of social media. Please do not assign this job to an intern! It must be connected to at least a mid-level marketing person, with oversight by an executive. This individual will be responsible for the schedule and tapping in-house talent for content.2) Who will own the monitoring piece? There are plenty of tools available to help companies tune in to what customers are saying about them. Some are free, others have a monthly charge. You need the involvement of a customer service manager to coordinate with marketing in that area. For more reading on the subject you might want to visit this site: http://www.informationweek.com/thebrainyard/news/social_crm/231400038.3) How will you build your communities? Include a plan for getting membership for LinkedIn groups, Twitter accounts, Facebook friends, etc. Use the data collected from your customer queries. These customers can become your first community members.1) Who will provide content? If you do not have buy in from people who can produce quality content, all your efforts may be in vain. Thinly disguised “commercials” in the form of tweets and blogs will quickly be dismissed by your audience. Content should come from marketing, customer service and at least one senior level manager, ideally your president or CEO. If that’s you, great. If not, remember, your CEO does not have to have his/her own WordPress and Twitter accounts, but there has to be a commitment to provide content on a regular basis. Be clear that you are not asking executives to blog or tweet. You are asking them to share their knowledge and expertise at least once a month. This can be achieved via a short interview with a marketing person, over a cup of coffee. It is an excellent opportunity for them to share their thought leadership — something they should be doing anyway!2) Set a preliminary schedule.This will depend on the social media tools you use. Twitter generally requires multiple daily posts. Blogs can be written monthly, as long as there is consistency.3) How will you measure impact?Take time to understand measurements that make sense for your company. There are a lot of articles about social media metrics. Find one that fits your business model.Step 4: Make a final assessmentAt some point along the line, as you learn more about social media, which customers are using it, what your competitors are doing and what the industry trends are, you will form an educated opinion as to its feasibility within your organization. There are few industries today that cannot benefit from using social media to engage their customers and articulate their unique value to their community. If you are the top executive of your business, your decision will carry the weight to make it happen. If you are at a mid-level spot, you’ll need to put together a report or presentation to properly communicate your findings. Either way, you have the confidence of knowing that you’ve evaluated it seriously and in context of your existing business plan.Step 5: Present your findingsRegardless of your personal thoughts and opinions, your work should take a format that can be articulated to others in your organization and should contain the following:1) A short overview containing the statistics, metrics that pertain to your markets, customer input and competitive use of social media that you collected in Step One. It’s important that others understand what social media is — without the hype, of course.2) Breakout of the pertinent portions of your business plan, indicating where the social media would fit within the goals, objectives and tactics already outlined therein.3) Implementation section, including who would run the program, how content would be created, schedules and measurement metrics. The way you measure your social media efforts will be key in assessing its value. There are many articles on the subject of measurement. Here is one from TopRank you may find helpful: http://bit.ly/pWEnsF.4) Closing summary which reviews the main points, articulates the pros and cons; the potential value and the tasks required to implement, manage and measure a social media initiative. If you recommend social media for your company, as stated earlier in this report, it is critical to get commitment from the highest level of the organization and down through everyone who will have involvement. To be effective, the use of social media must be consistent, involve quality content, and encourage two way communications with your customers and prospects.Wow! Why go through all this work? If and when you get to the point of recommending your program, you will already understand the unique place social media holds within your business. Furthermore, you will have answered many of the key questions and demonstrated the tangible value of integrating social media within your business plan. You will have a sense of how to implement the program, along with who will provide content and a method of measuring its effectiveness downstream. Finally, by placing social media within the business plan, you’ve validated its importance as a critical tool to reach beyond traditional marketing and customer service activities.Not all marketers would agree with this approach. Some experts argue that social media is a phenomenon that cannot and should not be inserted into business plans. Others would assert that you “just do it!” and not over analyze it. This may be true. But our business plans form the cornerstones of our organizations. Social media, as a unique communications form, is being short-changed if it does not hold a prominent place there. And that’s no hype!Good luck. Let me know where your evaluation of social media leads you.