Social Networking for Business Guide

social networkingIt seems like there’s an over-abundance of social sites nowadays. For a newbie, it can be quite intimidating when first joining a network or two and building a community. A handful of questions may run through your head:

  • Which networks to join?
  • How to participate?
  • What’s enough, or too much?
  • How will it help my business?

So, to answer some of these, I’d like to present my “Social Media For Dummies” overview. First, a quick recap of my favorite networks and what they’re about.

The ultimate platform for keeping up with (stalking) friends. I joined Facebook way back in 2005, you know, when it was just for college students and before you could even share photos (gasp!). I’ve witnessed the evolution of this mega-network over the years, and it has become, not only the 4th largest website in the world, but the best place to find people, keep up with them, and inform them. It is the son of Classmates.com on every possible steroid ever ingested by humans. The ability to share and communicate with friends and colleagues is seamless. Overall, Facebook is a great place to start your social networking endeavors.

A must-have in every business person’s arsenal of tools. If you are (or hoping to be) in business of any sort, LinkedIn is a great place to set up shop. Very similar to Facebook, minus the annoying applications, plus job postings and resumes. This is where you network with those in your industry, join groups, research companies, and prospect clients. Build your credentials by asking colleagues for recommendations or head to the “Q&A” section to offer advice.

Twitter – Share, Learn, Meet
I wouldn’t be surprised if Webster adds a new definition for “tweet” this year. Within the first half of 2009, Twitter has gone from nearly 5 million users to over 23 million. It is the social media platform of choice at Fortune 100 companies. Easily share links, pictures, videos, articles… Oh, and personal updates… with followers. Twitter is kind of like the cocktail party of social networks. Here, you can easily reach out to strangers by tuning in to their tweets or quickly replying to them. A limited amount of customization keeps annoying advertisements and outlandish profiles at bay, unlike the outdated MySpace.

Digg, del.icio.us, StumbleUpon, reddit, etc.
Social Bookmarking to share and store your favorite links. You just read an article over at NYT.com that you loved. Use one or more of these bookmarking sites to share it with the world. Looking for information or articles on a certain subject? Head to one of these sites and search your topic, you’ll be able to peruse a list of articles or sites that others have found useful or interesting. Not only are these great for sharing, but storing sites for later use as well. Say you have a home desktop, a netbook for travel, and a work computer… customize your bookmarks and easily access them on each computer without updating each machine.

All of your networks in one place. FriendFeed lets you put all of your networks in one big stream. Users can see your Facebook status, latest Tweet, pictures posted on Flickr, blog post, bookmarked article and much more when they follow your feed. Much like Twitter, but a whole lot more.

These are the networks that I tend to spend most of my time on and are probably some of the key ingredients that should be in the pot. Every person and business is different and may need to change their recipe accordingly, but the key to all of these is to contribute and become a part of the conversation.

Now What?

So, now that we’ve covered some of the major players in the social networking field, it’s time to discover how we can use them. As a person in business, especially an industry with a significant amount of its target market online (which is really all of them now), you’ve got to understand that these networks are an integral part of their lives. Just like in previous decades where television commercials were considered a major part of any advertising/marketing plan because everyone watched TV… now, as many are leaving cable in the dust and turning to the Internet for their information and entertainment, it’s more crucial than ever to join the ranks of the digital pioneers.

However, the people using these networks are smart. They don’t fall for blatant advertising traps like they used to. They want to know that there’s something in it for them. If your product isn’t it and that’s all you’re talking about on Twitter, then they’ll ignore you. Social networks aren’t about advertising – they’re about building relationships.

Say you run a small business, maybe you own a restaurant, a clothing boutique, a PR firm or a chiropractic firm… What is in it for you?

  • Take a look at your customers or clients when they’re in your office or store. Are they on their iPhone or Blackberry checking email? Did they mention finding you online? Did they hear about you from a friend? If you can answer “yes” to any of those questions, then you’re missing out on connecting with your customers and should probably put on a pot of coffee, cause you’re going to be here for a while.
  • Social media is a chance to be at your market’s finger tips when they look at their phone or get online in a friendly and non-obtrusive way.
  • You can quickly address customer service issues by communicating directly with the customer.
  • Prospect new clients.
  • Learn about trends in your industry, stay up-to-date with competition and network with power players in your industry.
  • Offer existing customers incentives, coupons or interesting information to keep them tuned in to your brand.

Many people will pay thousands of dollars trying to get these things with traditional techniques. Social media is free… despite, of course, any operating costs like time and possibly design fees to add a professional touch. You need to be on here… Do a Google News search for “small business social media”. BusinessWeek, LA Times, NY Times will be some of the publications insisting you buck up and make it happen.

How to Participate Effectively:

  • Do not start a social media campaign if your intention is free advertising. No one will listen and you will waste your time. Period.
  • Take a minute and figure out what you want to get out of being involved in social networks. Research how other businesses have been successful. Make a plan. Mashable is a great place to learn about social media.
  • Twitter is a great place to find people in your area, geographically or by industry, and interact with them. Start a conversation, always give if you ever want to receive and don’t constantly advertise. No one likes spam… so don’t spam your followers with pleas to go to your website or go into business with you. Offer your followers a coupon or discount if you’re hoping for business from them… Keep them up-to-date on any changes to your menu or services… Share fun pictures from happy customers… Follow-up with an unhappy customer or use your competition’s bad customer service as a great way to introduce you into their lives. Just remember to keep it real, be you, because everyone wants to know that there’s a human behind your username.
  • Facebook is generally most successful for companies with a large following or customer base. But that doesn’t mean you should skip it… create a personal profile so you can network with friends and family. By being there, you can instantly share things about your business with people who already like you and will probably listen more than the average stranger. By keeping your brand in their mind, they’ll be more likely to spread the word and pass you along to their friends, and so on. Word of mouth, my friends…
  • LinkedIn is a must for anyone in business. Very straightforward here, like a virtual resume on steroids. It’s always good to network with past and present colleagues and continue to build relationships, because you never know when you may need them or vice versa.

Last Words:
Keep your brand consistent among all of the networks you decide to join. Monitor your brand using tracking tools. And remember to Collaborate, Communicate, and Participate.

Erica Erwin works with online marketing, social media and public relations for a small-business improvement firm. http://www.webplus5.com http://www.businessways.com/

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  • This article is well-written, but it doesn’t really tell me anything new or useful. Join social networks. Tell your friends about your product/service and hopefully they’ll pass it on. Etc. The reality is that promotion of any kind – however subtle – on Facebook, MySpace etc., is very much frowned upon and discouraged. At best, people ignore it. At worst, they block you, or post a message on the “wall” asking you not to use the site for promotional purposes. And I’m not talking about blatant promotions; I’m talking about anything that looks even remotely like it might be a promo for something. Nor do “friends” tend to share things, apart from video clips of the latest Britney song, or whatever.
    It is possible to create groups, fan pages etc., on most social networks; but, again, people tend to ignore these. Very few groups attract more than a handful of members (unless, again, the group has something to do with celebrities, movie stars etc.).
    At this stage I think I must have read a thousand articles – on websites, in newsletters and so on – supposedly advising website owners on how to use social networking to promote their business; and yet I still have no idea how this can be done. The advice is always the same. Sensible, as far as it goes; but basically of no practical value.
    To give just one example of what I mean: I have around 30 facebook friends (six or seven are real friends whom I’ve known for years; the rest are casual aquaintances and people I’ve only ever “met” online). If I posted a message on the fb “wall” right now letting these friends know that, eg, I’d just had a book published, a handful of them – maybe eight or nine at best – would post congratulatory messages such as “Well done!” or “Way to go!” Maybe – if I was very lucky – one or two of them would click the “share” link. But the people they shared with would almost certainly not hit their share link (because they don’t know me from Eve). And that would be that. Within a few hours, my post would have descended to the bottom of the wall (where hardly anyone reads); and by the following day it would have disappeared altogether.
    Some big promotion!
    So, as I say, while I keep hearing about companies who have used social networking to promote themselves successfully, I can’t see how that is possible, given the built-in limitations of Facebook, MySpace etc. The simple fact is, nothing goes further than your immediate friends unless they hit the “share” button. In fact it would probably be more effective just to email each of them individually and ask them to share my email with other people in their address book.
    Maybe somebody here can post a link to a website which actually explains how to use social networking to promote one’s business (and which doesn’t merely give the kind of obvious and sensible but essentially useless advice given in this article. advice

  • I think social networking is one component in a marketing strategy – it doesn’t work in isolation.

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