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Companies encouraging workers to use social networking to communicate with customers

FORT LAUDERDALE — Tweeting, blogging or posting online could soon become part of your job.

That is what's happening for some employees at AutoNation. The Fort Lauderdale-based national auto retailer is a prominent example of how businesses are involving workers in their social media strategy.

Anthony Del Vecchio, who directs event marketing for AutoNation, now spends about 15 percent of his work time on Twitter or other social media. "It's the new frontier. It's not hitting (customers) with offers, but to give them information. They can come to us for answers as opposed to not trusting auto retailers," he says.

Now AutoNation plans to roll out social media to its dealerships.

AutoNation plans to designate a "social media champion" at its dealerships. This will usually be the Internet sales manager or another worker who has online experience and interest. Workers "will have the opportunity to have their own voice and their own channel," says Stephen Higgins, social media manager for AutoNation.

While Higgins wants to encourage workers to get involved in the company's social media, he also thinks some ground rules are in order. That's one factor he and social media strategist Lori Vajda are considering as they expand the retailer's social media to include front-line employees.

Social media experts warn that companies that involve employees in social media should communicate their strategy and goals. There should be discussions about what's okay to post and what is not, such as confidential company information. Ideally, an employee's tweets or posts should engage customers online and reinforce the brand.

A company's social media strategy should relate to the company's objectives, and employees who are blogging, posting and tweeting need to be aware of that strategy, says Sharlyn Lauby, a social media consultant in Fort Lauderdale. The top benefits of social media for business are generating exposure, increasing Web traffic, finding business leads and closing deals, according to a March 2009 social media industry report by Michael Stelzner.

Lauby says it makes sense for a company to include employees in their social media because they're already talking about the company to the public. "Give them the tools to go out there and do their job," she says.

At AutoNation, Vajda educates employees that everything they post on the Internet should be considered permanent. She also trains workers on how to respond online to customers: "You want to identify who you are so the fan or customer knows your role within the store. You don't want to make promises you can't fulfill."

Companies need to consider an employee's enthusiasm for participating in social media because the interaction with customers online needs to be frequent.

Lauby says when employees are seen on Facebook or Twitter on their company's behalf, it increases trust. "People buy from companies they know and trust. When you have employees out there building relationships, it only adds to that," she says.

Social media "helps to build an emotional bond with the brand," says Nick Castaldo, co-owner of the Fort Lauderdale restaurant chain Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza.

Many employees are "fans" of Anthony's Facebook page, but they're not selected or urged to participate, Castaldo says. Workers have been enthusiastic about the Facebook page, posting photos and making comments.

The Facebook page also has become a communication tool for employees.

Anthony's bartender Sarah Hendricks often points customers to the Facebook page when they ask her questions, such as where to find another Anthony's restaurant.

Customers "can go to Anthony's Web site, but it's a lot more fun to go on the Facebook page," says Hendricks, 21.

Companies encouraging workers to use social networking to communicate with customers 03/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 6, 2010 8:06am]

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