The Evolution of Technology: Effective Social Networking for your Business

The business and marketing world is always evolving and, while there’s something to be said about remaining committed to tried and true methods for promoting your business and prospecting for new clients, it’s important to be willing to embrace or at least experiment with new marketing approaches.  Right now, one of the biggest explosions in the online communication realm is social networking.

What is social networking?

Social networking is basically an online community that is tied together by some commonality – geography, background, education, a hobby, profession, religion, and political views, for example – who come together to communicate over the internet.

What’s the benefit to small businesses?

The online connections that are formed through these social networking sites provide a wealth of information about your existing and prospective clients’ views and their preferences for receiving information.  They can also help you hire the right people, offer promotions and product information, solicit feedback, and conduct customer service.  Additionally, the friends you can make on these sites can expose your business to their networks and act as an unspoken endorsement.

What may have an even more substantial immediate impact on you and your business is the opportunity social media provides you to network with other business owners and industry experts all over the world.  It’s a great way to expand your knowledge about new products and services, and it gives you the chance to be viewed as an expert in your field.

Specifically, social networking sites provide a small business owner:

  • A searchable directory where you can quickly search for people by geographic location, professional title, interests, and industry.  Although face-to-face networking has a multitude of benefits in various stages of the sales cycle, it’s simply impossible to narrow down your prospects with that level of precision in a room full of people without spending a significant amount of time with each of them.  Social networking is also a great way to open the door to a line of dialogue with a potential employee or business partner.
  • Significant exposure at a low cost, as many of the most popular sites are free.  For example, according to Facebook, the site currently has more than 350 million active users; by signing up, you’re essentially exposing your business to all these people at a cost equal only to the work hours you or your employee invests in maintaining your profile.  That said, effective social networking can consume a huge amount of time, which is a cost to the business, so make sure it’s ultimately worthwhile.
  • An opportunity for group discussion and feedback.  A big reason people participate in social networking sites is to be part of a group, so it’s much easier to create a forum for discussion here than on your own web site or offline, as long as you show people how their participation will create value for them.  Form a group around a topic related to your specific niche within the financial industry to build credibility as an expert in the field.
  • A chance to connect with a lot of new people and to get the word out about services, products, and events without having to rely on paid advertising or the media.
  • A forum through which to conduct market research. For example, on LinkedIn, you can join professional communities to discuss and ask questions about what’s going on in your industry. On Facebook, you can create a poll for targeted users.  Social media is a great way to stay on top of your field and competitors, and to learn what your customers and prospects are saying about their needs, experiences, and your services.
  • A different format to connect with your own customers.  Increasingly, people are electing to abandon old forms of communication and receive information in new ways.  Many people already prefer to communicate via email rather than over the phone.  Social media just gives them one more option to hear from you.

What Are Some Examples of Top Social Networking Sites?
And, how can small business owners use them?

Facebook.  Most people are familiar with the site for personal use, but it can be immensely beneficial to a small business owner as well.  You can create a fan page for your organization (recommended only if the business is pretty well-known) or start or join a group related to your business/industry.  Be sure to add basic company information to the group page, such as links to your site, newsletter subscription information, and newsletter archives.

Keys to success on Facebook:

  • Obtain a Facebook vanity URL so that people can find you easily
  • Add your Facebook URL to your email signature and any marketing collateral for your business
  • Post business updates, upcoming events, useful articles, and links to valuable resources on your “wall”
  • Upload your contacts from your email client to find more connections
  • Market your products by posting discounts and special promotions
  • Use Facebook Connect to add social networking features to your web site

Twitter.  Twitter is a microblogging site in which text-based posts (“tweets”) of up to 140 characters are displayed on the author’s profile page and delivered – via the Twitter web site, mobile texting, or instant message – to the author’s subscribers who are known as followers.  Twitter is useful for marketing tidbits, event announcements, listening to customers, and link sharing.

LinkedIn.  Business-to-business companies can really benefit from LinkedIn, as it a site primarily for business professionals that allows them to join groups, create their own, and answer questions to establish expertise.  Unlike other major social networking sites, LinkedIn is designed to help people connect for professional rather than purely social purposes. 

LinkedIn is a great site for small business owners because it:

  • allows you to see the degree of separation between you and others with whom you are not yet connected so you can understand the relationships around you
  • has a comprehensive search engine that allows you to locate and reconnect with past colleagues, peers, and alumni
  • can provide media connections so you know to whom to pitch your story ideas
  • allows you to help shape your personal brand
  • establishes credibility
  • enables you to check references for business associates and potential new hires

Blogs (short for Weblogs).  Blogs are perfect for the small business owner because they are easy to create, easy to update, easy to master, and encourage repeat visits.  Blogs, which promote ongoing conversations with readers, are great for increasing your web presence and driving traffic to your web site, as many blog-generating services (such as Typepad or WordPress) automatically format them so search engines will pick up on words and phrases.  The more you update your blog, the more chance you’ll have to show up higher than a static web site in Google rankings.  And, by becoming a fan of other blogs (find them through Technorati or Google Blog Search) and posting comments, you have an opportunity to direct people to your own blog.  Sign up for a free blog on WordPress , Blogger, or Typepad. 

Keys to successful blogging:

  • Don’t stress about it. Even though creating a good blog takes time and effort, trying to do too much can be almost as bad as never updating your blog.  Your posts don’t have to be 1,000 words; they can be short and conversational. It’s about the fundamental information you want to convey, not the prose. 
  • Don’t over advertise. Yes, you may be blogging to promote your business, but if it seems like that’s your only motive, it will probably be a big turnoff to readers.  Focus your content on useful, specialized information that comes from your own experiences.  Start with some top-10 “how-to” lists, for example.
  • Tell a story. It works to add a personal touch to your business blog because it humanizes you and might make the reader more interested in your business.
  • Consider search engine optimization (SEO).  SEO refers to increasing your site’s presence in search engine results.  The more sites that include your name and link to your Web site or blog, the higher your business profile rises in searches.  To get discovered online, prominently use phrases on your blog that searchers will use.  For example, if you are a financial adviser in Columbus specializing in qualified retirement plans, make sure you include all those words/phrases on your blog. 
  • Find another expert in your field and invite him or her as a guest blogger on your blog.  It’s a good way to vary content and expand your readership to include those who may follow your guest.
  • Bottom line: keep your content fresh, relevant, and valuable to your audience.

Also worth mentioning:
YouTube.  This site provides a great means by which to provide information to prospects and customers. Take some video of you describing your services and upload it. 
Flickr.  Besides being a photo storage/sharing site, Flickr has tons and tons of groups, many of which are local and offer a great opportunity to connect with neighbors and potential customers.
Yelp.  For brick-and-mortar businesses, getting positive reviews on Yelp can be huge for business building.

Establishing a Social Networking Plan

Just like the other facets of your business, you need a plan in place to make your social networking efforts successful.  Your participation in Twitter, LinkedIn, and any other site is a tactic that should be a part of your overall strategic sales and marketing plan.  Keep in mind that using this avenue to communicate with clients and prospects will limit the time you have available for other sales and marketing efforts, so diligently monitor your return on investment and do your research to determine if it’s time well-spent.  Social networking can be extremely successful, but it should not outright replace other tactics that have helped grow your business.

The biggest thing to remember when starting out with social networking is that you don’t have to do it all right away.  Get to know each potential site one at a time and don’t commit to 100 percent active participation until you really know if that’s where your audience is and if it’s going to be a worthwhile endeavor.  Trying to sign up for everything all at once will be overwhelming and will limit the time you have available to create really valuable content.  That will, in turn, likely limit the interest you are able to garner, so you won’t end up with an accurate picture of which site is most effective for your organization.  Also, aimlessly participating in social networks can be quite deflating.

To get started, monitor online conversations in social media that are relevant to your industry.  Along with familiarizing yourself with topics people are interested in and how a discussion forum works, heightening your awareness of these discussions can provide very valuable information on marketing tactics, your competition, and new products and services.

Then, join conversations by commenting or answering questions others pose.  Make sure your comments are relevant, respectful, and constructive, and remember to identify yourself and your company.  This will provide a great introduction to how the whole process works.

There’s really not one best social networking avenue that works across-the-board.  Rather, it’s important to find the right one for your specific business, budget, location, customer base, and objectives.  As you gain personal experience using these networks, you can begin to identify how each may fit into your overall sales and marketing plan and what specific initiative with each will most effectively grow your business, brand, staff, and career.