Many organizations have been reluctant adopters of social media. After all, it’s still a fairly new phenomenon, and the terms of engagement change so rapidly that many Directors feel like they don’t have the resources to commit to something that is viewed more as a hobby than a communication tool. But the fact is every organization is on social media whether they intend to be. Whether you’re dealing with customers, donors, or other businesses, people are talking about your organization — and they’re talking about it on social networks. Commit resources to social media, and you have the chance to direct the conversation. Ignore it, and you don’t have a say about what’s being discussed in the rumor mill.

Directing the conversation isn’t as simple as starting a Facebook fan page and sending out Twitter tweets. You must plan and prepare your social media strategy. For the many employees who suddenly find themselves with the social media responsibility, getting started can be a challenge. It’s even more difficult for those who don’t use social networks in their private lives and are left wondering how they ended up with the social responsibility when their jobs aren’t seemingly connected to marketing or technology at all.

A wise man once wrote “don’t panic and always know where your towel is.” Don’t panic about entering the online conversation. Plan ahead and you’ll be ready to handle what the online community throws at you. Think of social media as your towel: It has many uses, perhaps most vital is cleaning up messes. Create your social media strategy before you start, and you’ll be prepared.

Start with a clear understanding of what your organization does best. Are you the best website designer or perhaps the best IT consulting firm? What makes you the best? Is it custom web graphics, or the most knowledgeable programmers? Build your social media strategy around your message. It might be as simple as: “Omega IT Consulting provides the best software solutions created by the most knowledgeable IT consultants in their field.” This statement shows who you are, what you do, and why you’re the best at it. To begin your social strategy, write your statement down.

Next, determine who needs to get your message. In other words, who are your customers? Think hard about this one. It might seem that your customers are midsize enterprises, but when you call a customer, do you ask to speak to the company or to a person? Social media is about making connections, and while you will certainly connect your company to other companies online, you are actually trying to get the attention of the decision makers at those companies. For our example of Omega IT Consulting, the target customers would be Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) and Project Managers.

Now you need to figure out who those people are. Conduct demographics research (if you don’t know where to start with demographics research, just search for “Chief Technology Officer demographics” — that will keep you busy for a while). Questions to answer include: Are CTOs and Project Managers generally men or women? How old are they? What are their primary income brackets? Do they golf, fish, play video games, read, or are there other interests that are big among your core audience? Do they have children? Do they like their jobs? Where do they hang out? Most importantly, what do they like and dislike, and what sorts of things affect their business decisions? Gather this information and get a clear picture of your audience. This is a marketing persona. Give it a name, because you will refer to this persona often. Let’s call this marketing persona Jack and assign him the job of CTO of a midsize enterprise.

So you know what your organization is and who comprises your target audience. You have your key message, and you know what your target audience needs. Write it all down because you will need to revisit it as you create and implement the social media strategy. If you’re feeling nervous, print it out and write “Don’t Panic” across the front. Refer back to these notes often. You’ll be amazed at how much easier social media marketing can be when you have the message and target audience clearly defined.

In my next post, I’ll focus on how to find your target audience in the wide world of social media.