To tweet or not to tweet, is not the only question businesses should be asking, according to a recent social media survey.

Prior to dedicating resources, time and money to social media, many companies are not preparing employees adequately enough to best utilize these online tools.

The Society for Human Resource Management survey, “Social Media in the Workplace,” found that 73 percent of employers do not provide training to employees engaged in social media outreach to external audiences. Yet at the same time, 68 percent of the respondents said they have employees who utilize social media to reach external audiences.

“The survey data show a disconnect in that most organizations use social media to reach audiences — yet few train employees to effectively do so,” said Mark Schmit, vice president of research at SHRM.

Matthew Monnot, an assistant professor at Pacific Lutheran University, said because social media is still relatively new, employers haven’t had enough time to switch the focus from getting involved to training employees for this type of work.

Beyond using social media as a business tool, Monnot said it is wise for businesses to have rules that guide employees about what’s appropriate or inappropriate to say about the company online.

“Having basic policies in place is really effective,” he said. ““Employees often don’t know where the line is drawn in terms of speaking about the company in a public forum.”

ROI worries

The lack of training in social media might also explain why many organizations do not feel it is an effective tool for marketing and generating revenue.

The SHRM poll shows that human resource managers gave especially low marks to social media as an effective tool for decreasing marketing expenses — only 4 percent rated it a very effective, while 31 percent rated it somewhat effective and 51 percent said it is neither effective nor ineffective.

Howard Chung, vice president of business development for Northpoint Social Media, said his company “highly encourages” its clients to integrate with social media. However, there are some exceptions.

“I’m all for social media — unless your clientele is not on social media,” he said, adding that a company must be aware of which social media tools its clients are using. “Every one of the social media vehicles has its own unique opportunities and its own set of rules.”

The first step, Chung said, to developing training for employees is talking “about the core marketing goals of the company.”

“You have to understand more technology than ever before to come up with a strategic action plan,” he said.

Chung said that a company must train employees on how they should handle situations and complaints that might arise when using social media.

“They need to know how to respond,” he said. “You could potentially dig yourself into a deeper hole.”

He said employees need to understand that conversations which occur on Twitter and Facebook are not private. So, he suggests that a company put rules in place for what employees can do to make customers satisfied when they have a complaint.

“You don’t want to offer up something you can’t offer to everyone,” he said.

Jaclyn Ruckle, an adviser at JayRay, said companies benefit from having a “streamlined process.” She said businesses should understand that there are three different phases of social media to work through and develop plans for.

The first phase is understanding what you want to accomplish by having an online community.

The second is starting and growing an online community. The third phase is determining how to maintain the community.

Ruckle said businesses do not need to hire a young, social media guru to find success online.

Rather, they need a clear plan of action that makes sense for the business and the talent it has on hand.

“It needs to tie back to a strategic purpose and marketing goals,” she said.

Make it personal

To quickly gather a following, Ruckle said a company should show its personality through its tweets and what it posts on Facebook.

“Successful businesses embrace the unique things about their company,” she said. “Social media excels when there is a good personality behind it.”

Companies that jumped into social media just to make money might quickly call the experience worthless because it’s difficult to measure return on investment.

However, Michael Gruener, a driver for University Place Refuse and Recycling, said his company is pleased with what it is getting out of its social media presence.

In May, Gruener wrote a proposal for a new position he calls “director of thanks.”

“I was just trying to rack my brain in what else could we do — not necessarily to increase business, because I don’t know if we can accomplish that, but what else can we do to increase our presence in customers lives,” he said. “There isn’t a really defined ROI, especially in our industry, because we are limited to the amount of area we can service. In the proposal, when I presented it, it was with the full knowledge there would be no measurable ROI.”

Gruener wanted to place messages of thanks in places his customers would most likely see them  — Facebook and Twitter. The company agreed this was a worthwhile venture.

Since taking on this new position, Gruener has been actively building the company’s social media presence.

“(I’m) trying to take the hard edge off what people see as a utility,” he said. “When you present it as a person rather than a utility … it creates a better relationship and makes it a whole lot easier to deal with issues.”

Prior to starting a Twitter account or Facebook fan page, both Chung and Ruckle suggest that a business analyze its work force to ensure it has at least one person with enough time to quickly respond to clients or customers who use these channels for communication.

But this does not mean it has to be full-time position.

Gruener, who is still a driver for the company, said he spends about 20 hours a month on social media — and he does a lot of that work through his phone.

While he doesn’t have any formal training, Gruener knew what his objectives and goals were before he dived in.

“It goes beyond Facebook and Twitter,” he said. “It’s an overall thing saying thank you to our customers for keeping us in business.”

Writer Breanne Coats can be reached at bcoats@businessExaminer.com.