Ten questions every board should be asking about social media

2 December 2016 By Northern Lights

Ten questions every board should be asking about social media image


This week I was asked by RSM in Leeds to speak on digital transformation for charity leaders.  It’s always hard to know how to explain strategic social media to people who don’t understand it.  What angle do you start from?  I generally talk through stories showing what has been achieved, rather than the details.  But this time I decided to do it from the aspect of the questions a board should be asking – and giving a flavour of what the answers might look like.

(I chose the photo for this blog because it made me think of most board directors looking in a rather bemused way at the odd person who is flying around doing social media!)

  1.  Where should you start with social media?

It may seem strange, but I think the best place to start in social media is to understand Google.  If you start thinking about your audiences and what information or help they need, you can then provide ‘content’ or answers to those questions through social media.  The best ways to do this are through blogs, factsheets, white papers, discussion forums and more.

Social media – such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn – then drives traffic to your website where this information or content is.

At the event, I mentioned the story of helping a friend last summer who had kidney stones and had to follow the weirdest low oxalate diet.  In searching for information, it was interesting that none of the UK kidney charities appeared on searches – it was nearly all American sites.  My view was that the leaders of these charities are not thinking about the most likely searches of their potential members – and then providing useful factsheets for them.  If they can attract the right audience to their website, they could then charge 99p for a download of information and build a relationship till they become a member.  I wrote more about this in 7 ways for charities to increase membership.

So what questions should a board be asking?  I kept these very simple – I think the focus should be to understand how close your social media team is to your customers or members.  Are they listening – and providing material to answer their questions?  And how easy is it for the outside world to have conversations with you online and to ask questions?


  1. How are you using social media to build relationships?

Too often leaders – and even social media teams – think of digital as the way to bombard people with lots of information and offers.  ‘Information at’ rather than using it as an engagement tool.

The rule of thumb is that social media should be 80% useful content and a maximum of 20% that could be counted as ‘advertising’.  This would be things like ‘we are holding an event next week, click here to book a place’.  Useful content could be sharing an article that gives insights, a factsheet written by a competitor (yes I know this sounds odd, read more in this blog to find out why sharing competitor material is so important).

So with social media you need to be objective just as you are with marketing and every other area of the business or organisation.  In the session, I mentioned I was training a number of PR professionals recently and as an example, a number wanted to build relationships with MEPs.  This is a great business objective for social media – you can build Twitter lists, follow and see the topics they are interested in and have conversations including useful information around these.

My colleague, Ben Pindar, trained the leadership team of a council last year and a key aim for them was to influence civil servants.  Their jaws dropped when he showed them a tweet from Sir Jeremy Heywood – the head of the civil service – referring to a meeting with Tom Riordan, chief executive of Leeds City Council and mentioning ‘impressive range of public service innovations’.  They had not realised that senior people were on Twitter, that they were tweeting sensible information or that relationships were being built on Twitter.


So the questions for the board should be around how objective is your social media, who do you want to build relationships with and how is that being done through social media.  There is a caveat here.  Not everyone you want to target will be on social media – yet.  So it may not be possible to engage on Twitter – but it may be possible through LinkedIn or more likely through guest blogs.  The key is to be clear about what you want to achieve and then research the best way to do this through social media.


  1. Building online communities

Social media works best when those using it are generous.  I asked the charity leaders to think about whether they could be the Mumsnet of their particular field.  Not everyone knew Mumsnet – a site which as their logo says is ‘by parents for parents’. The idea is that if you build a community of like-minded people (they could be anything from procurement officers in manufacturing to doctors in mental health) then they are all experts in this field.

Any organisation can use social media to be the conduit for these experts – build a platform for them, provide content, share answers, find other experts to answer the questions and so on.

Questions for the board are to ask if your members/target audience could help each other and if this would help you achieve your strategic objectives.


  1. Social media in a crisis

The final area we looked at was using and managing social media in a crisis.  I used the example of the Eurostar trains that broke down in the Tunnel over the Christmas break a few years ago.  When Eurostar started using social media, its leaders had decided to do a gentle start by doing promotional activities first and to look at crisis management later – against the recommendations of their advisers.

When the trains broke down, no-one had a plan in place to tell passengers what was going on.  But the fact that Eurostar was not on social media did not mean their passengers weren’t.  They were all tweeting like mad and pretty furious at the lack of information.  Initially no-one at Eurostar had access to passwords or the skills to put information out so there was complete silence.

This year, we have had half a dozen new clients where we are managing social media. The biggest nightmare? No-one knows their passwords! We are eventually getting these sorted, but it is a warning to any business – make sure you know the passwords (often a marketing person has set up an account and then left), that you have these details out of office hours and have on tap someone with the skills to handle social media in a crisis.


I have kept all these questions pretty basic, but I think they provide a good starting point for leaders to start understanding social media and offering insights to it?  I would welcome other views on this – do you think they should start from different aspects, are there critical areas that should still be included at this first stage?

Please do share your views and perhaps they will help with a follow-up blog!

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Written by Northern Lights

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