Today's tip is guest-written by Alan Wolk, a U.S. creative director and social media consultant. Alan also runs an insightful blog called The Toad Stool, where he coined the increasingly well-known mantra Your Brand Is Not My Friend.

How To Use Social Media, by Alan Wolk

Social Media is a broad term, and it’s often thrown at any and all online marketing vehicles that don’t fall into the banner ad category.

So let’s start with a brief definition: social media is anything that lets you share information with other people. That means it is everything from sites like Facebook and MySpace to message boards to blogs to widgets and videos and whatnot that you are able to share with your friends—if you find it worth sharing. You, the consumer, get to decide that. Not me, the advertiser. Big difference.

So now that we’ve got that out of the way, here’s how to make the most of it:

1. LISTEN. Want to know what people really think of your product? Google it. Chances are you’ll find hundreds of posts and links and comments from people who’ve used your product. Both experts and amateurs. Your goal is to parse through these and see if there’s any common theme. So if an overwhelming majority of comments focus on how the handle always seems to break off right away, you know it’s not just a few angry old ladies. Similarly, if you see a majority of raves about how stylish the new red model is, you know you’ve got a winner on your hands. Use your research to find out things that are buzzworthy—things about your product that people are talking about on their own. That’s what you should be advertising.

2. ENGAGE. If there’s a problem, you’ve got to let people know you’re aware of it. Let them know that you hear them, that you’re working on it, and that you want to keep them as customers. Dell has done this quite successfully and has taken the brand from “Dell Hell” to a much better place.

You can engage them on blogs, via Twitter (Tweetscan is a great tool for monitoring Twitter) or via ads (if you’re honest in the ads and admit there was a problem, rather than trying to gloss over it.) This is a tough one for most clients because they’re not set up to deal with negativity nor do they have the proper people in place to respond to negative comments. You’ve got to be like the best stewardess you’ve ever seen: always smiling, always engaging, always trying to make the unhappy customer happy.

3. REMEMBER YOU’RE NOT THEIR FRIEND. As I’ve written ad intinitum (and ad nauseum) unless you are one of the dozen “Prom King” brands, no one is going to want to hang out with you online. They may use and like your product, but if it’s a reasonable bet that no one will (unironically) wear your logo on a t-shirt, then you are not a Prom King brand and you need to engage people as a salesperson, not a friend. In practical terms, that means that you’re not going to do the next Nike Plus site. (Nike and Apple being major Prom King brands.) But it doesn’t rule out something equally as cool or creative. It’s just that whatever you do has to work a little harder to please people.

4. FIND SOMETHING YOUR CONSUMERS MIGHT CONSIDER USEFUL. This is both easier and harder than you think. All you have to do is put yourself in the consumer’s shoes and think about what they’d be likely to think was cool and worth passing along to their friends. It can be anything from a video to a Facebook app to a downloadable PDF called “10 Packing Tips from Expert Travelers.” The main thing is, it has to provide value. Unfortunately, consumers are the ones who determine if it’s providing value. Not you. Not the D&AD judges. You can call a video “viral” all you want, but unless people pass it around, it’s just a video on YouTube.

5. KEEP YOUR COPY POINTS TO YOURSELF. The absolute worst mistake you can make in social media is to try and treat it like an ad. Which is sadly a knee-jerk reaction for a lot of marketers and agency types. The thing about social media is that it’s all about what the consumer wants to hear. Not about what you want to tell them. And what they want to hear is something about your product that will get them buzzed enough to tell somebody else. To wit: one of the most successful Facebook apps (with something like 7 MILLION installs) is TripAdvisor’s “Cities I’ve Visited.” Which, as the name implies, is a world map where you can mark off all the cities you’ve visited and share that information with your friends. There’s a TripAdvisor logo at the bottom, but that’s about it. No “TripAdvisor makes for better travel experiences by letting you review hotels before you go.” (Or worse.) No, all you take away is “Traveling is fun.” Which, if you’re TripAdvisor, the leading travel review website, is really all you need. The key with social media creative is to make your point gracefully and then get out of the way.

6. SOCIAL MEDIA IS FOREVER. In addition to things on the web being up there pretty much forever, social media campaigns don’t have the short shelf life of ad campaigns. You can’t start up a really active message board and then ignore it because the TV spot’s no longer running. People will be furious. Ditto an online video that sends you to a web site. Way too often the agency and client forget about the web site or worse, take it down. And you’ll literally have thousands of people watching it as much as a year later and all they’re seeing is a blank page or an error message, when a simple redirect would have done the trick. (This effect is known as “The Long Tail” and there’s a whole book about it that’s worth knowing about.)

7. YOU CAN’T FAKE IT. This is probably the single most important lesson. Authenticity is king. That means no fake blogs. No fake characters created solely for representing the demographic you’re targeting. No lying.

It also means you’ve got to use the actual social media vehicles. Get your butt onto Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter. And you’ve got to use them correctly too. Twitter is about conversation. It’s not about setting up an account, adding a few people to your “People I’m Following” list and only tweeting links to articles about your agency while never actually responding to anyone who tries to engage you. The same way Facebook isn’t about setting up an account, accepting friend requests from a handful of people and never exploring what’s going on there.

Look, you may feel like an old fuddy-duddy at first. Or be confused as to why anyone would want to do this (which I think is most everyone’s first reaction to Twitter.) But the more you know, the more you are a part of what’s happening as opposed to merely an observer, the better you’ll be at figuring out ways to use it.

8. SOCIAL MEDIA DOES NOT EXIST IN A VACUUM. I mean it’s not like there’s some parallel universe where people only use Facebook. Those same people are watching your commercials on TV, reading them in their favorite magazines and hearing them on the radio. So there’s got to be some synergy between the various efforts. Some realization that even if clients and agencies silo ads according to media type, people don’t. So suggesting that a print ad actually reference a Facebook app you’ve created makes perfect sense. (To everyone but the people who have to figure out whose budget that cost is coming out of, but that’s not your problem.)

So that’s about it. The good news for agencies is that social media is about what consumers want to hear. And what consumers want to hear is rarely dull, dry, or overburdened with endless arcane copy points.

Previous Tips:

How To Get The Best Out Of Directors; Don't Write Ads, Write Strategies; How To Choose Where To Work; Working Outside London; What Would John Webster Do?; What Would Paul & Nigel Do?; The Hidden Flaw; How To Write Copy; Be Funny All The Way Through; How To Do Virals; How To Get A Pay Rise; Be Wary Of Punding; Challenge The Brief; Tell The Truth; Playing To Lose; How To Write Headlines; How To Do Direct; How To Do Radio; How To Do Press; How To Do TV; How To Do Digital; How To Do Posters; Look At Weird Shit; Presenting To The Client; Presenting To The Team; Presenting To The Creative Director; How To Deal With Rejection; Look Creative; Don't Be Afraid To Ask; Your Idea Has To Be 120%; Read Iain's Tips; Don't Behave; How To Discuss Ideas; Read Hugh's Tips; How To Get A Job In Advertising Part IV - How To Turn A Placement Into A Job; How To Turn A Placement Into A Job (Ed Morris view); How To Get A Job In Advertising Part III - How To Approach Agencies (re-print of Tip No. 7); How To Get A Job In Advertising Part II - How To Put A Book Together; How To Get A Job In Advertising Part I - FAQ; Make Friends With Traffic; Get Reference; Don't Stop Too Soon; Be Very; Breaking Up; Working Well With Your Partner; Finding The Right Partner; How To Approach Agencies; Never-Seen-Before Footage; Dicketts' Finger; Two Blokes In The Pub; Play Family Fortunes; Should You Take A Bad Job?; Don't Overpolish