Your social media policies should help you to scale your social media operations and differentiate your organization in the market, but most organizations are still missing the point.

Scaling social media often requires mobilizing and empowering lots of people. Policies help to empower those people while also creating appropriate accountability. Unfortunately, most organizations' policies simply mitigate risk. In addition, the costs of creating social media guidelines are very small, but the potential benefits are very large.

As organizations figure this out, social media policies tend to evolve through three stages: Mitigation, Information and Differentiation (see figure below):

1. Mitigation

Mitigation policies protect the organization from risk and liability. Such policies usually contain guidelines such as, “respect copyright”, “link to sources” and “do not post pornography”. These policies are usually prepared in quick reaction to a perceived need to protect the company from liability or potential employee actions that could negatively impact the organization. These guidelines are often useful and necessary, but they are essentially the same for all organizations, and they do not help the organization to create value. Most social media policies fall into this category.

2. Information

When organizations begin to understand the true potential benefits and risks of social media, they begin to consider guidelines that are more unique to their organization. Such guidelines provide valuable Information to employees, and often occur in two forms, as follows:

First, organizations provide boundaries that help employees utilize social media more consistently with the goals and norms of the organization, rather than leaving employees guessing. These policies vary by organization. For example, organizations provide guidelines regarding the use of the organization's trademarks in personal social media. Some organizations allow employees to use the organization's trademarks in personal social media; some organizations do not.

Second, organizations may think ahead of their employees and provide guidelines that help employees protect themselves in their social media interactions. For example, an organization whose employees interact with customers on Facebook might tell employees which fields to exclude from their Facebook profile for the safety of the employee. This type of guidance requires thoughtful consideration of the organization's culture, customer expectations and the types of interactions between employees and customers.

3. Differentiation

Differentiation policies give employees guidance, best practices and data that helps them to differentiate their organization in the market. Examples of such policies might include the company's best practices for engaging customers on LinkedIn in ways that are consistent with the company's brand.

In addition, leading companies incorporate guidelines that support their customer and employee data models with the goal of enhancing their 360-degree view of customers.

Guidelines that differentiate an organization are the most difficult to create, because they require thoughtful consideration of the organization's social media objectives and operational knowledge of effective practices in social media.

Also, deployment of such guidelines may require ongoing communications, training or even technical support to employees. As a result, very few organizations provide such guidelines to their employees today. For example, an organization that wants to fully leverage employee LinkedIn relationships might audit or monitor their employees' LinkedIn profiles to ensure appropriate search engine optimization of the profiles.

The Future

Social media policies can be important enablers of social media operations at scale by helping to provide the right levels of empowerment with accountability for business results. As organizations realize the role that social media policies can play in scaling social media operations, more and more organizations will evolve toward guidelines that differentiate, rather than simply mitigate.