There's an art to using social media and digital forums to build relationships and to amplify your voice. Thoughtful professionals in the mutual fund and ETF industry will think twice before they hit "submit."

Social capital, the international currency of business networking, is built through hundreds of actions we take every day. We build it - or tear it down - via electronic, telephone, written or in person interaction. The relationships and reputation we build over time has become a currency. In today's digital world, tweeting and posting on social media sites and discussion boards are ways to have a voice. But good old-fashioned manners and thoughtful, balanced comments are sometimes in short supply.

Even the most informed professionals sometimes suffer from pushing the "send" or "submit" button too quickly. One thoughtless tweet that got global attention in December 2013 occurred when a PR professional (not the author of this article, mind you) who was traveling to Africa tweeted something she thought was funny right before the plane took off. In the three hours she was in flight without Internet connectivity, a Twitter hailstorm took place. When the executive landed, she had some explaining to do. Ultimately, this executive was fired from her job.

CREATING A SOCIAL MEDIA POLICY

While digital comments can help us build brand and social currency, they can also come back to haunt us. That's why social media consulting firms such as Hearsay Social exist. Hearsay provides assistance for compliance for regulated companies worldwide, including FINRA, IIROC, SEC, and FCA regulated financial firms. Hearsay's Social Media Policy Guide is an 8-page document full of thoughtful advice that is applicable to the financial services industry.

"In this digital, mobile and social media era, social media has become a crucial sales and marketing tool that, when used correctly, will contribute to your bottom line," said the guide. "The benefits are many: social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google+ allow your company to raise awareness, drive how it is being depicted online, generate leads and referrals, cultivate client relationships, bolster sales results, recruit top talent, resolve customer service issues, reap valuable feedback and allow your employees to establish themselves as trusted experts in your field."

"This guide was developed to help executives in marketing, sales, compliance, legal, HR, and IT who want to create a thoughtful and comprehensive employee social media policy to prevent and address social media risks that may plague your organization," said Victor Gaxiola, customer advocacy manager at Hearsay Social. His job is to work closely with established customers and internal stakeholders in marketing, sales and customer success management to increase adoption, retention and the return on investment in financial social media. "To reap the full benefits of social media, you must plan and account for compliance, legal, and branding issues that could put your company at risk if left unchecked. Once management and the social media taskforce agree on your company's strategy, it is important to distill key points into a social media policy," he says.

BEWARE THE TROLLS

Many professionals have been caught up over the years in discussion forums where one of the people posting seems primarily interested in rocking the boat. These people, sometimes called "trolls," take pride in poking holes in others posts and comments. They pounce on anyone who comes to the defense of the author or online discussion leader. Sometimes these people have valid points to make. Other times they take their arguments too far, and become snarky and insulting along the way.

"In Scandinavian folklore, a 'troll' is a supernatural creature that lives in the caves and mountains. On the web, a troll is nothing but a pest who thrives in the anonymity that it provides," says a snippet of text on Wikipedia. The Urban Dictionary has quite a few definitions lined up but "one who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument" is the most point blank. Trolls have a confrontational style of interaction. They also tend to have a lack of personal information.

The common advice is "don't feed the troll" - meaning don't add anything to the online discussion that will fuel the fire. In a future contribution, we'll discuss more specifically how to squelch an online conversation that seems to have taken a turn for the worse.

CHECK YOURSELF

As someone who has counseled hundreds of financial professionals in all aspects of marketing communications over the years, here is my own advice.

In all your social media and digital communications (and as a corollary to life), ask yourself:

* Am I working within my company's social media and digital communications guidelines?

* Why am I posting this? Is it all about me and my ego?

* Does this matter to anyone else but me?

* Will this make a difference to my friends and followers?

* Is this post any of the following:

* Common; ordinary; banal; unimaginative

* Indecent; depraved; disgusting; repulsive; lascivious

* Boastful; egotistical; blatantly self-promoting

* Hurtful, politically-charged, making other people wrong

At the end of the day, social media and discussion forum etiquette is a lot like the advice our mothers gave us when we were young. Be nice, try to say something smart, and treat people well (and they'll respond in kind).

Marie Swift is president of Impact Communications, a marketing communications firm. 

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