The shift towards the social web calls for a new mindset in the relationship between organisation and consumer – a mindset characterised by transparency and accountability, employee empowerment and spontaneity.

From an operational or legal standpoint, the social web may at first appear too risky or impractical, outweighing any potential benefits. However, just like any other business initiative, these risks can be managed. The key is to approach the social strategy with a holistic plan that accounts for every part of the business; one that sets realistic expectations and provides a long-term view of success.

It can be tempting to jump straight into a social game plan without a lot of preparation. Many of the technologies are free (or at least cheap) and easy to use. There are plenty of case studies to emulate. And it’s exciting to try something new. But organisations should tread carefully when embarking on any new course of action and when it comes to the social web, there is groundwork to be done first.

Step One: Understand your organisation

Authenticity is one of the most important rules when communicating on the social web. You have to use a human voice and allow employees to express their personalities. This means relinquishing some control over corporate messaging and acknowledging mistakes. But you can’t be authentic if you don’t know who you are.

Start by surveying what your organisation already has in place in terms of social initiatives. Who owns them and who is affected by them? Does the corporate culture support a move into the social web? Are there any policies already in place to support or guide that move? Is there anything at all that you can learn from what may have been attempted in the past?

Be realistic about how your organisation might react to different scenarios. Know that at times you will be expected to respond to criticism or crisis, and work out how the organisation will cope with such issues.

Step Two: Know your consumers

No longer the passive recipients of sales and marketing efforts, consumers have become instrumental in helping to shape brands. The social web conversations they have can impact revenues.

Any company looking to move onto the social web needs to identify where these conversations are occurring and must understand how to communicate on their consumers’ terms. Look for places where your organisation, products or services are being mentioned, then grab a pen and start taking notes. Better still, use a monitoring tool to keep an eye on conversations unfolding across Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, key  industry or consumer blogs and forums, and so on.

Keep a tally of the conversations on each site. Note the general sentiment of comments about your organisation and identify any trending topics relating to your organisation or your industry. Look for the major influencers and pay attention to consumer complaints or suggestions. As you monitor, think: what are the areas of value that you can bring to consumers through the social web?

After about a month of watching it should be possible to begin to determine what needs to be done and why.

Step Three: Set a goal

To gain business value from the social web, you have to know what you’re trying to achieve. Use the information from steps one and two to identify whats right for your organisation – keep in mind that it is always best to start small, focusing on one goal.

Typical goals include reduced support costs and improved customer satisfaction. Others often relate to commerce, awareness and customer loyalty.

Once you have a goal, identify the process and cultural changes that are going to be required. Create a list of the technologies and tools that can help. Then put down the key performance indicators that will enable you to measure the projects success.

Step Four: Form a social team

A successful social strategy crosses the boundaries of department and hierarchy. If the marketing team is broadcasting one message while the support organisation sends another through Twitter, customers will quickly start to question authenticity.

To avoid inconsistencies all social initiatives should be governed by a cross-functional team and backed by at least one executive sponsor. Depending on the goals of the organisation, this team may be responsible for developing policies, providing documentation, ensuring correct staffing levels and training for social initiatives, advising on social brand evolution and tracking results.

Step Five: Map it out, six months at a time

One-off initiatives – such as running a campaign on YouTube – can be easy entry points, but they won’t bring extended value. Once you start to connect with people through the social web, it is important to continue to engage, building on the relationships.

Map out what you plan to achieve in six monthly cycles. Leave room for adjustments, of course, but a map allows you to prepare content in advance and to ensure that you have the people, tools and processes in place for each step along the way.

Conclusion

Stories abound of big brands running massive social web campaigns with impressive effects on top-line revenue and bottom-line costs. But its just as easy to find stories of failure. We can learn from both types of examples but we need to understand them in the context of our own unique organisations, industries, goals, and consumers.

That is why a social strategy must be built from the ground up, with all the rigour that would be applied to any other business initiative but with a few key distinctions. Always remember that consumers must be at the centre of any social web strategy. The cultural shift is more important than the technological shift. Collaboration and feedback must become a force of habit. And, perhaps most importantly, no social initiative is ever complete. You must continuously iterate forward.