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7 steps to social media stardom

Social media is taking up more and more of our time, both at home and work. Many enterprises have even started to treat social media tools as mission-critical, meaning that if you don't start mastering them, your lack of knowledge could impede your career.

Where IT pros do their social networking

However, since social media is so new, there really aren't established best practices built around it. It's hard to determine what works and what doesn't, and it's easy to be blind to social media risks. Here are 7 social media tips and tricks that will help you better protect your privacy, attract more followers, and increase your reach and influence.

No. 1: Value your privacy

The worst privacy offender in the social media world is Facebook, or, more accurately, the invasive apps layered on top of the poorly secured Facebook platform. In October of 2010, a Wall Street Journal investigation found that the ten most popular Facebook apps were vacuuming up contact lists and stealing people's identifying data.

This practice violated Facebook's policies, so the social-media giant responded by giving the apps what amounted to a time out. They were suspended for the weekend and reinstituted the following Monday. That pretty much describes how important privacy is to Facebook.

Even the apps that take only the data you gave them permission to take may create problems. How many times have you gone on your Facebook page and seen that a friend has "read articles about 'Kim Kardashian's 5 secrets for a firmer butt'" (Yahoo News Reader) or watched a video of "Busty girl on the beach doing a backflip" (Socialcam)?

Never allow an app to announce your personal reading habits or other personal information to the world. Future employees, prospective mates, ex-spouses, future stalkers, random weirdoes all could end up knowing things about you that you'd rather they not.

The problem here is that we have made a deal with the devil on the Internet, and we then extended and deepened that deal when we moved to social media and smartphones.

As long as people refuse to pay for things on these channels, software creators and service providers will monetize their products by using your personal information. It's a business model with an aggregate market valuation well over $100 billion.

Until enough people refuse end-user agreements that violate your privacy, the problem will continue to get worse. To start getting a sense of the scope of the problem, install PrivacyScore, a browser plug-in that ranks how well apps, websites and trackers respect your privacy. You'll be shocked.

No. 2: Protect your posts

Privacy will probably never be completely fixed on social media networks, but tools are emerging to help you regain control. One of the best is the browser extension Scrambls.

"Would you let the phone company listen into your calls in order to target you with specific telemarketing offers?" asks Steven Sprague, co-founder of Scrambls and CEO of security company Wave Systems. "Of course not, but that's pretty much what social media does every day."

Scrambls encrypts social media posts and lets users specify exactly who can see them, across all social media sites. The user can form groups from friends and family, going as broad as everyone with a Gmail account down to a specific colleague or even those who know a certain password. Everyone else (including the social media site itself) will only see a series of random numbers and symbols, keeping content private and secure.

A cool feature is the ability to put an expiration date on posts, after which time only the author can see them. No more worrying about HR seeing some stupid post from a party five years ago.

"Delete is a false choice," Sprague says. He notes that there are plenty of posts - say, from our college years - we'll want to keep, but over time make less and less public.

The main trouble with Scrambls, though, is that it won't really be useful until a tipping point of users is reached. Otherwise, people don't know why hieroglyphics are showing up on your Twitter feed. There are a few other kinks as well, but it was just released at the end of April, so it's expected to improve.

No. 3: Embrace analytics

Not too long ago, marketing analytics were something that only large companies and agencies could afford. As social media advances, though, analytic tools are available not only to SMBs, but also to individuals.

Tracking your social media output can point to simple tweaks to make you more effective. For instance, if you're tweeting from a trade show, be sure you know the exact official hashtag for the show.

Analytics can be just as important if you want to promote a story or a tweet. For example, should you tag it BYOD or mobile or mobile security or something else. For two days in late April, #BYOD was tweeted 971 times by 654 different people, generating 1.7 million impressions with a reach of 1.1 million people. Compare that to #mobilesecurity at 38 tweets, 30 contributors, 25,500 impression, 17,600 reach, and it's clear that #mobilesecurity isn't a very good tag.

There are plenty of low-cost or free social media analytic tools out there. They may not offer the power of a Radian6, but not everyone has several hundred dollars to spend each month on a subscription. Google Analytics is a good place to start. Hashtracking.com will give you a free report with a transcript and data on 1,500 tweets (or 24 hours of tweets, whichever limit is hit first). Hashtag.org offers a free hashtag search engine, and, of course, Twitter itself offers some rudimentary analytic capabilities.

Analytics shouldn't be limited to Twitter. Other tools include PageLever, to gain insights into Facebook fan pages; SiteTrail, to keep track of your competitors' social media activities; Social Mention, to analyze key terms across platforms; and crowdbooster, which promises "a plan of action instead of just a stream of information."

No. 4: Don't be annoying

When a conference, trade show or other special event comes along, many people start tweeting like crazy. For followers, this can get to be a nuisance. If the tweets seem repetitive or irrelevant, some users may un-follow you.

"[When you have an event coming up], tell your followers in advance that you'll be tweeting a lot (and remind them a few times throughout the day). Then ask them to mute you instead of un-following you," says Stephanie Schwab, Principal, Crackerjack Marketing, a social media and digital marketing firm. "I use Mute Tweets and recommend it to my followers each time I attend a conference."

With Mute Tweets, you can temporarily un-follow someone when they become too "noisy." Do this manually, and chances are you won't remember to re-follow - which isn't always a bad thing, but usually isn't the response you want for temporary nuisances.

No 5: Automate mundane tasks

Has it ever dawned on you that social media is an insanely cumbersome tool? Do you repeat tasks often? Do you consistently thank people who follow you? Do you always load mobile photos to Facebook?

If you do any of these frequent, consistent, repetitive tasks, do yourself a favor and start using IFTTT (If This, Then That). In IFTTT, you can create your own tasks or copy other people's "recipes" to avoid reinventing the wheel.

The first recipe I adopted was one that automatically thanks people when they mention me on twitter or retweet one of my posts. Other less obvious recipes include ones that will send you the weather report via SMS each morning; that will email you when the Amazon free Android app of the day is posted, and which will send your blog RSS to your Twitter account, so you don't forget to tweet your own content.

No. 6: Settle on one channel

Hootsuite and Nimble both give you the ability to unify major social media channels into one console. When I first tried these out a few months ago, I found Nimble to have a few too many glitches, so I adopted Hootsuite, which I think is great.

However, Hootsuite doesn't currently support Google+, but Nimble does.

Nimble is also taking steps to integrate with third-party tools, such as MailChimp (an email marketing platform). Nimble looks to be evolving more as a social CRM and sales tool (it offers the ability to track sales leads and deals), while Hootsuite is more of a social media aggregation and collaboration tool.

Both suites give you instant visibility into multiple social media channels, the ability to simultaneously post to multiple social media sites, the flexibility to create specific groups of followers (or people you follow) and the ability to track analytics.

It's worth test driving both to see which works best for you.

No. 7: Join a community

Andrew Schrage is the co-owner of Money Crashers Personal Finance, a financial advice website. To boost subscribers and followers, Schrage turned to LinkedIn. "Recently, we've started to get more and more involved with LinkedIn Answers. We provide expert advice on all things financial, complete with links to some of our relevant pieces," he says. As a result, Money Crashers is seeing more traffic and gaining additional subscribers.

People ask questions on pretty much every social media platform, but LinkedIn Answers is the place to go to turn your expertise into greater social media reach.

Jeff Vance is a freelance writer based in Santa Monica, Calif. Connect with him on Twitter @JWVance, on LinkedIn (Jeff Vance), or by old-fashioned email at [email protected]

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