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How To Be Transparent With Customers: Expert Tips

Often spoken of but seldom achieved, transparency is one of the most important elements of becoming a social business, say Pivot Conference speakers.

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If you want to be a social business, learn to be transparent and involve everyone--from upper management to the newest intern--in your day-to-day blogs, tweets, and posts.

The advice, presented at the Pivot Conference this week in New York City, is applicable to large companies and small businesses, who are increasingly getting into the social media act, according to a Manta research report that found 90% of small businesses are using social media sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook.

One of the most important things a business can do--and something that many have not gotten the hang of--is to be transparent, according to Charlene Li, founder of the Altimeter Group. There is no credibility in social without transparency, she said.

One of the earliest examples of how to do this right came from Dell, which in 2006 defused a potential publicity nightmare with its own blog post. During a conference event, one of the company's laptops exploded into flames, Li explained. Someone took a photo and released it on the Web. Rather than downplaying the incident, Dell penned its own blog about the disaster, titling it Flaming Notebook.

Another example she cited was Four Seasons, which puts unfiltered reviews on its site, pulling content directly from The company doesn't delete negative reviews or those that could hurt its brand. The simple fact that it does this helps to boost its customers' trust in the company, Li said.

[ Learn What LinkedIn Endorsements Mean To You. ]

This type of transparency starts with making social the "course of business for everyone," not just those who are in PR or marketing, Li said. Businesses need to create a culture that includes social and rewards social risk-taking. "The true act of courage is when you don't know what the outcome is going to be," she said. She suggested managers "create opportunities to take small risks every day." No one should be "sitting there wondering what will happen" if they fail, she said.

Sharing within a corporate social environment is a good way to start, as is creating a reward system so that everyone who contributes to social--whether their interactions succeed or fail--can be rewarded for their efforts. Li explained that Google management says that "every failure is an opportunity to learn," which is why some of the very engineers that fail spectacularly end up on the best projects.

Managers should also look to every employee as a potential source of a good social idea or communication, said Jimmy Soni, managing editor at Huffington Post. His organization is "flat" so "ideas can bubble up from the bottom." Each week the site holds calls with junior staffers asking them what the organization can do better. The results include "dozens" of ideas, many of which are implemented.

Social media make the customer more powerful than ever. Here's how to listen and react. Also in the new, all-digital The Customer Really Comes First issue of The BrainYard: The right tools can help smooth over the rough edges in your social business architecture. (Free registration required.)

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