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Social media give businesses, nonprofits a new tool for reaching out

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 21, 2010 - When HOK was having trouble attracting potential mid-level employees two years ago, the architecture firm didn't set up booths in job fairs or advertise in the classified section. Instead of using these more traditional recruiting tools, the company connected with job candidates through social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn.

With the guidance of the University of Virginia's business program, HOK established an online presence that not only attracted applicants, but involved employees from every part of the world.

"It was edgy," said Mike Plotnick, a member of the corporate communications team at HOK. "We wanted to lift the veil on HOK and show what the company really is."

According to Plotnick, the firm's social media outfit fulfilled its initial hiring objective and now aims to connect with customers and showcase architects within the company. Roughly 40 HOK employees have regularly updated blogs that detail what it's like to work for the international firm.

Plotnick said that many people play a role in designing buildings, but rarely get the attention the lead designer sees. With employee blogs, customers and potential employees can get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into how buildings are designed.

"We're turning it on its head," Plotnick said of the architecture industry's media relations. "The blog is an opportunity to showcase and give people at all levels a voice and a venue for sharing what they do here and what inspires them."

While social media gives HOK a new voice and a different avenue to reach job candidates, they also allow the American Red Cross St. Louis Area Chapter to integrate itself further into the community.

"We want to make sure the community knows us before they need us," said Lindsey Weber, the marketing and communication associate for the American Red Cross St. Louis Area Chapter, in response to questions through the Beacon's Public Insight Network.

In addition to raising awareness for the chapter, social networking helps the Red Cross create a dialogue with the community and develop a "human" quality that identifies the chapter as something more than a non-profit organization. To achieve this quality, the Red Cross' Facebook, blog and Twitter do not just present preparedness tips or details on the next blood drive.

"Back in May, our CEO took some time out from her schedule to plant some flowers for the entrance to our office," Weber said. "After seeing what she was doing, we posted her picture on Facebook and Twitter, and it overwhelmingly became one of our most 'liked' posts. While planting flowers doesn't directly correlate to our work, it shows our supporters that behind the Red Cross are real people who do real things."

With the Red Cross and HOK focusing their social media campaigns on external relations -- potential hires, clients or the community -- SSM Health Care uses social media to build togetherness within the company.

"After seeing hospitals use social media, I thought we better get involved," said Chris Sutton, corporate communications manager at SSM. "Not just externally, but internally too."

In an effort to build company camaraderie, the health-care company sponsored a hand-washing video contest for its employees. According to Sutton, the entries garnered 18,000 views on YouTube and sparked conversation around the company's offices.

"Social media have been great for company morale and employee engagement," said Sutton.

While social media cater to aspects of corporate culture like morale building, hiring and community relations, they also help companies conduct business. According to St. Louis Integration founder Keith Aumiller, social networking can serve as a free and quick way to build business relationships and market products.

Social media are "a great way to maintain and establish business connections," Aumiller said. "For consumer products, they act as a cheap commercial avenue and testing forum for new ads."

Aumiller's company helps businesses build their internet presence. St. Louis Integration's customers include MasterCard, Boeing, Edward Jones and Express Scripts. According to Aumiller, social media allow his company to generate leads, identify people, develop potential customers and stay in touch with past customers.

"It's good for getting the word out quickly to a large number of people," said Aumiller, adding that social media are his company's industry.

Social media's quick and far-reaching voice has yielded results for its local users. Sutton said SSM's main website has experienced more traffic as a result of its Facebook and Twitter efforts. According to Plotnick, HOK has a lead on a building in Los Angeles, thanks to a comment left on an architect's blog.

Social networking was also crucial for the Red Cross during the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti.

"During the response to Haiti's earthquake, we witnessed social media become a platform not only to receive, but to provide assistance to those who needed it," said Weber. "We firmly believe that during times of local disasters, social media's role will be amplified."

Weber said that for social media to be effective, a company must use them correctly. Posts must be timely, accurate and reliable. Holding the customers' attention is also a must.

"Social media are like fishing," Weber said. "You have to select the right lure if you plan to reel in any fish."

For Aumiller, the right lure for any business is consistency and dedication to social media. He said an all-or-nothing approach is the only way to treat the new innovation.

"If you aren't going to use it fully, and stay engaged, don't get into it at all," Aumiller said. "There is nothing worse than starting a conversation and walking away from it."

Patrick Sullivan, a student at the University of Kentucky, is an intern at the Beacon.

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