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March 16, 2009

No-Cost Marketing: 5 Benefits of Social Networking

Most small businesses appreciate marketing strategies that are low-cost or no-cost, especially in today’s unpredictable economy. Online marketing channels such as web sites, e-newsletters, email campaigns, and internet advertising are already being used by small businesses to save money on marketing, since these tend to be much less expensive than some older, more traditional methods. But with the popularity of sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn, small businesses are finding yet another marketing strategy that not only saves them money, but is also very effective in getting the attention of customers and the search engines alike – and that strategy is social networking.

1.       Keep Customer Mindshare
It used to be that small businesses purchased newspaper or magazine ads, and used billboards, radio ads, or direct mail campaigns to keep their name in front of customers and potential customers. But today, these methods have not only become very expensive, they also lack the flexibility necessary to target audiences with a message meant exclusively for them.

Today, customers are using the web everyday. They use Google to find information, Facebook to share information with their friends, Twitter to stay in touch with others during the day, and they listen to downloaded podcasts on their iPods. By having a solid social networking presence, a small business can easily meet the needs of its customers; whether it’s announcing relevant news in a Facebook profile, broadcasting special offers to followers on Twitter, or showing up at the top of the search engine listings so customers click on their web site link first (before visiting any competitors’ sites!).

2.       Develop Customer Relationships (and Loyalty!)
Today’s customers really do expect some level of online interaction with your company; whether they are using your company’s blog (or other related blogs), following your Tweets (on Twitter), writing product reviews on sites like Amazon.com, or posting questions and information on sites like LinkedIn. The more you can provide customers with a way to interact with your business, the more supported they feel, and the more positive their experience and attitude becomes. Be sure to also follow the “conversation” by using tools like Google Alerts to monitor how your business is being presented and talked about on the web.

3.       Build Inbound Links
Building organic inbound links to your web site is the most effective way to improve your rankings in the search engines, especially in Google. Most social networking profiles allow you to include links to your web site, which then become new inbound links that point to your site. Depending on the social networking site, you can sometimes use your keywords as anchor text in your profile, and direct these links to specific (optimized) landing pages on your web site. Not only will these organic links help you gain points with the search engines, they can also help drive sales and boost conversion rates by bringing users directly to the landing pages on your web site.

4.       Increase Visits to Your Web Site
It’s pretty logical – the more exposure your business has on social networking sites, the more customers and potential customers have an opportunity to click on links to your web site. If you can also provide good quality content, useful information, and other helpful resources in your profiles, you can often create enough interest (or maybe curiosity) to get users to visit your web site – users who would not have otherwise had any exposure to your business. Just make sure that you create specific landing pages on your web site that are relevant to your social networking visitors, rather than just sending them to your home page.

5.       Rank Higher in the Search Engines

By providing multiple sources of quality, indexable content on various social networking sites on the web, your online visibility is expanded, giving the search engines more content to discover. Search engines routinely index not just web pages, but also blogs, images and photos, video, wiki entries, podcasts, and social networking profiles. When you provide great content in a variety of forms and in a variety of places, you improve your chances of getting noticed (and ranked higher) by the search engines.

As social networking continues to gain in popularity, small businesses are finding ways to take advantage of it to connect and communicate with customers. In the past, reaching customers was often an interruption – a commercial on TV, an ad in the middle of a magazine story, or a billboard on the side of the highway. But social networking provides a way to interact with customers and engage in a two-way conversation with them. Of all the marketing strategies available to small businesses today, social networking seems to provide some impressive benefits for little or no cost, which may be the greatest benefit of all.

Lauren Hobson, President of Five Sparrows, LLC, has more than 16 years of experience in small business technology writing, marketing, and web site design and development. Five Sparrows provides professional web site and marketing services to small businesses and non-profit organizations, giving them access to high-quality services at affordable prices. To read articles or subscribe to Biz Talk, please visit www.FiveSparrows.com/biztalk.htm.

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