The Business

Social networking for your business

Once considered a fad for teenagers, social media tools have become accepted components of any business’s marketing strategy. Dell is on Facebook; SAP is on LinkedIn; IBM has a large presence on the animated virtual world Second Life. Should you be there, too?

It seems like every year or two there’s a new technology that everyone – if you believe the press – has to have to compete effectively in today’s business world. It’s too soon to say what that might be in 2010, but in 2009 it was clearly social networks: Facebook (facebook.com), LinkedIn (inkedin.com), BT’s Tradespace (bttradespace.com), and, perhaps especially, Twitter (twitter.com), all of them free to users. ‘Social media’ encompasses these, plus blogs and user-generated content sites like YouTube, Flickr, even iTunes (think podcasts). Should you be using them? Probably one or more can help you reach customers, but most companies should be selective and think quality, not quantity.

As social media consultant Suw Charman-Anderson (charman-anderson.com), says, “what you want is for your loyal customers to promote you to their friends. You don’t need 1 million people doing that.” Think about how you want to grow your business;, yes an ecommerce company needs a steadily growing customer base, but a freelance consultant needs just a relative handful of regular clients.

“The thing to remember,” she says, “is that people really like word-of-mouth. They will ask their friends before they ask Google or look in the yellow pages. So giving people an easy way to get to know you and what you do and come to understand what your company does is providing a fertile ground for word-of-mouth. It gives people what they need to be able to recommend you to others once they’ve had a positive experience with you.”

This is certainly the experience of Wrexham-based Clear As Crystal Web Design (clearascrystal.we.bs). Owner Charles Conway uses Tradespace for what he calls an “enhanced Web presence” and gain national reach. More important than that, he says, the site’s community has helped him create a reputation for his business.

“Other Tradespace users would post links to their Web sites and ask for feedback on things they could do better, make it work better, or get more exposure” he says. “I would give them a constructive criticism of their site – not necessarily with the aim of selling directly to them but more with the aim of establishing myself as an expert in the field and show the kind of advice clients get when they come to me. That led directly to new business.” Conway also uses Twitter’s real-time search function to find people thinking about a new Web site. He’s less enthusiastic about Facebook, where the lines between business contacts and friends get blurred.

“The problem with Facebook is mixed signals,” agrees Charman-Anderson. “It can be really weird negotiating that curly boundary between private and public.” She herself was taken aback when a client unexpectedly asked how her wisdom teeth were at their first meeting: he’d read her personal blog. Her reaction now: “People can get a feel for who you are and find common ground to talk about in the early stages of a project, and that social connection makes communications much smoother. I don’t personally shy away from putting personal information online, but I think carefully about what I do put.”

Consult Hyperion (chyp.com), which specialises in such areas as payment technology and identity management, uses a mix of media. Among the social networks, Director Dave Birch uses Twitter and LinkedIn (the latter chiefly to assemble groups for particular projects,) but says the two standouts are the blogs and podcasts.

“Putting effort into the blog is by far and away the most effective marketing tool [for us],” he says. “A great deal of what would have been our marketing budget has been completely absorbed by blogging.” Blogging, as Charman-Anderson agrees, is a way to prove your expertise on a subject and to pull together your other social media presences.

And yet, to an outsider, Consult Hyperson’s blogs may seem modest: “We’re after a fairly limited clientele. I don’t need thousands of people to go to a blog posting, but I want the guy I’m working for at Visa to go there.” Each year, Consult Hyperion also prints a low-cost book of the blog content to give to key customers; the book is also distributed at various events. Birch finds it more effective than a brochure.

Similarly, Birch posts his weekly podcasts (he asks interesting people he meets to record short interviews) free on iTunes. He estimates that each one takes a couple of hours to edit and finds the time well worth it.

“We don’t get as many downloads as blogs get views – maybe 100 distinct downloads – but the fact they exist turns out to be quite good marketing. It does take more work. But we get emails that show that people clearly do listen to them.”

Birch’s experiences highlight a key lesson: no single network fits everyone. If social media are technological implementations of word-of-mouth, then the choosing a social network for your business is simple: go where you’ll find the kind of customers you want to attract and the time you spend networking will be worthwhile. As Charman-Anderson puts it, “Now, as ever, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know – and social networking tools help you know a lot more people.”


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Social networking stands to benefit businesses
Suw Charman-Anderson’s article for CIO Magazine covers the advantages and disadvantages of business social networking:
http://suw.charman-anderson.com/freelance-journalism/social-networking/

The newcomer’s guide to social networking
What a social networking strategy should cover:
http://blogs.computerworld.com/the_newcomers_guide_to_social_networking

A Guide to Social Networks
About.com’s comprehensive list of social networks in various categories:
http://webtrends.about.com/od/socialnetworking/u/list-of-social-networks-guide.htm

The maturation of social media ROI
How to measure results from social networking:
http://mashable.com/2010/01/26/maturation-social-media-roi/


 
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