I recently had the opportunity to exchange thoughts with Nick Johnson, Founder of Useful Social Media.  USM is doing some interesting stuff and I wanted to share some of Nick’s points here.  Enjoy, and feel free to comment below.  

Tell me a bit about how you got into social media and how Useful Social Media came together?

I’ve been working for our parent company, FC Business Intelligence, for about five years now. Before USM, I was working on responsible business and sustainability. A lot of the people working in that space have come from, or still work in, marketing and communications. From chatting with them and reading up on the area it became increasingly obvious that companies were desperate to learn more about how to leverage social.

I did a bit of research and found that there was nothing out there for big companies. All the conferences were populated by social media ‘gurus’ and service providers. Coming from the conference world, I know how valuable it is for companies to learn directly from peers in a very business-focused environment. So I started to work on putting together a conference that would deliver that. Things just grew from there.

What are some of the common mistakes you see companies making when it comes to social media? How can they be avoided?

There are a few big ones. The first is not thinking things through – if you don’t have a goal in mind, and KPIs to hit, social media will either a) be a waste of time or b) cause you some serious problems.

The latter leads on to my second point: not briefing staff on what social is or what the rules of engagement are. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard of big mistakes happening because an intern had been put in charge of social media and merrily posted something that was offensive, incorrect, or a mistake in some other way. You’ve got to train and engage staff.

My third point is the ‘head in the sand’ problem. There are a lot of companies out there desperately trying to avoid social. They have no presence on the main networks, and they forbid staff from engaging. They don’t seem to realize that the conversation is already happening without them. It’s too late to assume this is all going to go away in a few years. It’s not. Social media is just another communications and marketing channel now. If you don’t engage, you’ll have no ability to influence and change the debate about your brand that is going on right now.

We’re half way through 2011… Where are we in terms of social media trends expected at the beginning of the year?

The big trend I was expecting to see in 2011 was the increasing use of social media for customer service – and it seems that is happening. It’s coming up again and again at our general marketing conferences – so much so we have now put together a show specifically on the topic – www.usefulsocialmedia.com/customerservice .

It was to be expected – once a company has set up (and is actively using) a Twitter or Facebook profile, it is only a matter of time before consumers started to use this new communications channel to ask questions, highlight problems, and – more positively – share how much they love a brand. In a briefing we wrote recently, we found that 70% of companies expect to use social media for customer service by the end of the year. I’d imagine by the end of 2012 that figure’s only going to grow.

What do you make of the Four Square’s Amex partnership recently announced?

It’s interesting. As far as I can tell, the two companies are simply making it easier to take advantage of opportunities already existing by automating the discounting process. My view of location-based social media more generally is one of confusion. I can definitely see how powerful the technology is to share discounts and deals – but it seems that there aren’t many examples of either a) companies going further and integrating location in a more interesting way or b) companies having much expectation that their current location-based strategy will do anything other than create a short-lived peak in activity. There doesn’t seem to be much of a plan for getting customers coming back for repeat business once they’ve taken advantage of a deal.

What’s next for Useful Social Media?

A couple of things: A full roster of conferences in the second half of the year. There’s one repeat event – our Corporate Social Media Summit Europe, which focuses on marketing and comms, but will cover other areas as well. In addition, we’re pushing out four entirely new conferences: The B2B Corporate Social Media Summit will deliver b2b-specific best practice and case studies – from research we know how different b2b social media is to b2c, so figure this will be of use. There’s also a show on using social media for customer service as I mentioned above. We’ve also got two really interesting events on understanding social commerce and how marketers can leverage social to increase sales and boost ROI; and a show on how to use game dynamics for better marketing.  To keep updated on all our conferences, head to www.usefulsocialmedia.com/conferences.

Second, we’re releasing an in-depth, 60-page report focused on the biggest issue in this (social) space: measuring impact and ROI. It’s a new venture for us, but we’re sticking to the key advantages we feel our conferences have on the competition –i.e., a complete and total focus on how BUSINESS should be measuring this stuff (nothing from service providers, gurus, ninjas or other ridiculous job titles), and practical, in-depth knowledge from those people working on this stuff directly at big businesses. We’ve got case studies: Whole Foods, Kodak, AT & T, WWE, Sony, Siemens, Vodafone and many more. Should be interesting.

What social media tools do you find yourself using most often for business? What have you moved away from?

Well, LinkedIn is absolutely huge for us. It’s a great way to get in touch with practitioners at big businesses that we’d otherwise be disconnected from. Our LinkedIn Group is also doing pretty well and is a good place for companies to share best practice and knowledge when they’re not able to get to a show.

Twitter –@usefulsocial – is probably number one though – we use it to push out news and opinions, comment on big stories, and also live-tweet our conferences. Our recent New York event had about 700 people from around the world tweeting in questions, commenting on developments at the show and sharing key learnings. These are hugely valuable streams of information and we love seeing the conversations kick off and grow.

To be honest, we haven’t dropped any network yet. I suppose we had a Ning page which we don’t do much with any more, since our own homepage has developed so much. But there are areas we want to move in to. Our Facebook page is growing, but there’s an awful lot more we want to do there – ideally it will be a hub where we can share media, ask questions, and generate discussion with people that are interested. I’m also aware that we need to do more with location ourselves – we allow people to check in to shows and find out who else is in the room with them, but I’m sure there’s plenty more we could (and should) be doing.

Courtesy plug time – a brand, a person, or, more importantly, a charity you’d like to tell others about?

Wow – that’s nice of you! Well, in terms of things I’d like to plug, the impact report is something I’m really excited about. If people want to find out more about that, then please do head to www.usefulsocialmedia.com/impact.

In terms of brands, I’d probably go with the WWE  – who have a first rate social media presence and are a far bigger company than I gave them credit for – a multimedia powerhouse! Corey Clayton is responsible for their social media work and is definitely worth a follow on Twitter. He’s a funny guy too!

Another person would be Richard Binhammer from Dell. He’s at the vanguard of this stuff and has been for years. And after spending time with him at our NYC show, I can also say he’s a lovely guy to boot!

Regarding charity, I suppose I should go with one who has had a particularly interesting social media story – the American Red Cross. I chaired a session with them at our San Francisco show on the 27th-28th June and found out an awful lot about not only their incredibly important work in disaster relief – but that the people working there are lovely, too! Considering what’s happening in the Arab world at the moment, I’m sure they and their colleagues at the Red Crescent deserve as much praise as it’s possible to give.

To borrow from James Lipton, what profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Hmm – well, I was in a band for about five years and loved it – so I suppose I will have to go for rock star!