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By Emily Pualwan

We hear so much about the power of social media, and many groups and organizations want to jump in and ride the wave of seemingly free publicity and awareness for their cause. But buyer beware! The internet is full of cautionary tales of campaigns gone rogue. That said, you CAN harness the power of viral marketing and social media campaigns with a bit of advance planning.

1.Think through what the call to action is you want to achieve
Have a clear and compelling call to action and test your message in advance! Build tools and platforms that make it easy for your fans to like, post, share and engage with your campaign.

2.  Engage your audience IN ADVANCE and throughout your campaign
Do you have a core of local followers? Consider asking them to be volunteer ambassadors. You can give them small gift bags as a token, perhaps with your messaging or branding. Then share with them on a regular basis what’s going on, and let them speak in their voice to their audiences.

3. Careful with #hashtags!
You can introduce a hashtag to your market but once you do you lose control of how it is used. Think through any potential negative use before you get started. In 2014 New York City’s finest introduced the hashtag #myNYPD with the call for joyous NYC citizens to share their interactions with the police. Hundreds of unflattering photos, some decades old, were posted in a campaign gone terribly wrong. The hashtag became a top-ten trending topics for all the wrong reasons. In 2012 McDonalds introduced #McDStories to encourage fans to post on their happy meals – again, it took less than a day for the hashtag to be hijacked and used to tell horror stories about their food.

4.  Measure and refine
Be sure to put analytics tools on all your web pages, and in any Facebook or Twitter promotion, and look at your results each week. You can refine your message and reach base on performance and feedback.

5.  Reward your influencers
Are people or markets you least expected getting involved? Boost their loyalty by offering specials and incentives to that group and keep the energy going! Host giveaways (although you need to be careful not to have sweepstakes and promotions on Facebook or your page may get shut down). Promote your campaign in your advertising. Conferences and trade shows are a great way to get your most loyal customers and followers to spread the message.