When social media reared its revolutionary head, the business world warily took a step back. Top executives remained especially aloof, despite the success many companies found using networks like Facebook and Twitter. Even today, hardly any CEOs have gone social.
Then there’s Sir Richard Branson, serial entrepreneur and CEO of Virgin. As a thought leader, Branson’s stats are off the charts. He’s attracted 3 million followers on Twitter, 1.6 million followers on LinkedIn, 500 thousand monthly visitors to his blog and 371 thousand “likes” on Facebook. And when Branson became the first LinkedIn Influencer to have one million followers, he had doubled that of his nearest competitor, Barack Obama.
Here are seven ways Branson makes social media work for him:
1. He’s actually on social media.
Branson is one-of-a kind simply because the majority of big-company CEOs (70 percent) have no social presence at all, according to a survey by Domo and CEO.com. Only 7.6 percent are on Facebook and 1.8 percent on Twitter.
This status quo has Branson floored. “When you get to the very top of companies, there is a surprising lethargy about using the online tools already available: social media,” he said in a LinkedIn post. “Embracing social media isn’t just a bit of fun, it is a vital way to communicate, keep your ear to the ground and improve your business.”
2. He doesn’t have someone do it for him.
Branson oversees more than 400 global companies, but he still manages to write his own tweets and posts. He writes about universal basics of business: entrepreneurship, leadership and success.
Branson strongly believes CEOs need a social presence separate from their organization. “People often wonder how I find time to tweet and update my blog so regularly,” he wrote on Entrepreneur. “How do they not find the time, I wonder? Social media is such a terrific way to connect with our customers that I would never miss out.”
3. He asks questions.
Branson reaches out to customers on social media for real-time conversations about how to improve his companies. “Social media overall—the comments on the blog and Facebook, Twitter—allows me to hear what people are saying on a daily level about each business and the brand, too—the good, the bad and everything in between,” he told Mashable. “It’s important to take the time to listen.”
Branson once asked his followers to throw out possible names for a new Virgin bank. He told Entrepreneur the “interest and thought that the discussion about the name inspired helped us to build stronger bonds between our new company and its customers.”
4. He answers questions.
Branson makes it a priority to respond to several followers’ questions every day. “It allows me to share the lessons I’ve learned in business, as people are always keen to find ways to be better at what they do,” Branson told Mashable.
What’s more, Branson always uses a personal voice, and his followers love him for it. He’s approachable and likeable and exudes positive energy at every turn. As a result, his very personality lends immediate credibility to his continuous stream of entrepreneurial wisdom.
5. He trains employees to be socially savvy.
All Virgin employees are expected to be active on social platforms, including top executives. With Branson’s tweeting and blogging 24/7, social media has become “knitted into the fabric of the whole company.”
By tapping into social networks, Virgin improves its products and services straight from the mouth of the customer. Virgin Airlines, for example, goes out of its way to trains employees to use social media to help passengers. Branson voiced to Mashable, “We’ve found that sometimes guests are more likely to tweet about a problem than tell their inflight teammates, so Twitter can actually help deliver real-time guest service.”
One major challenge for companies on social media is staying organized and consistent. Branson told Inc.com, “The easiest way to start is often by setting up a help line, so that customers can ask questions about your product or service. Listen and respond thoughtfully, and you’ll be on your way.”
6. He relishes new opportunities.
Branson has always been a thrill-seeker on the road less traveled (he recently launched a space tourism company). “I love learning and I expect to continue to love learning until I drop,” he told Forbes. “And I love people . . . If you’ve got a lifetime of learning, why not put that to good use?”
To Branson, the social realm is a different kind of adventure that goes beyond business. “People want to know what’s meaningful,” he said in his interview with Mashable. “So I use social media to share what philanthropic causes and campaigns are important to me and . . . our companies do it too.”
Branson is known for using unconventional business promotions via social media, such as Virgin America’s #flyfwdgiveback charity sale on Twitter that ended up marking its fourth largest sale day. Virgin has also found success promoting its products and services on platforms like Facebook, Groupon and FourSquare.
7. He lives by one rule: “Be authentic and organic.”
In Branson’s own words via an interview with Entrepreneur, “You know your products and services, and people will see through any effort to parrot slogans or broadcast a marketing message. Like everything, if you’re having fun rather than just doing a job, you’re more likely to find success.”
Social media allows Richard Branson to showcase his originality and set Virgin apart from other companies. Frankly, he’s confused why other CEOs don’t do the same. As he wrote on LinkedIn, “The beauty of the web is that there is plenty of room for everyone. Does anybody else want to join the party?”