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Sunday, July 11, 2010

How to Use Social Networking Sites to Drive Business

Advice for small businesses on using social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, and how to integrate these tools into the marketing and recruiting efforts of your company.

By J.J. McCorvey

Consider this: It wasn’t until 1997 that the Internet reached 50 million users in the United States. Facebook gained over 100 million users in the U.S. from January 2009 to January 2010, marking a 145 percent growth rate within one year, according to research by digital marketing agency iStrategy Labs. If you’re a business owner that hasn’t embraced social media networking as a major component of your success strategy, it’s due time to hop onboard.

“When you’ve got 300 million people on Facebook, that’s a huge business watering hole,” says Lon Safko, social media expert and co-author of The Social Media Bible: Tactics, Tools, and Strategies for Business Success, of the site’s global reach. “The profile is like an index to your company.”

While Facebook has become the most popular social media site, there are plenty of others for your company to explore. LinkedIn, for example, houses 55 million professionals seeking jobs, employees, or basic business or networking opportunities. MySpace, which allows users to tinker with music, themes, and HTML code, is targeted toward youth and teens. All of these sites have one primary thing in common: the profile.

The user profile is generally what distinguishes social networking sites from other social media platforms. It helps set the stage for building relationships with people who share the same interests, activities, or personal contacts, as opposed to primarily disseminating or digesting information feeds. This also means social networks enable companies to invite audiences to get to know its brand in a way that traditional forms of marketing or advertising can’t.

But what, exactly, are the methods that businesses should use to effectively leverage the burgeoning userbase of these sites as a tool to grow their companies? The following pages will detail what to do – and what not to do – in order to maintain a viable presence in the realm of social networking.

How to Use Social Networking Sites to Drive Business: Developing a Social Networking Strategy

Before opening an account and becoming active, it’s important to consider what each site offers and how you can benefit from their resources. “Take some time and really analyze what your existing social media strategy is,” says Safko. “Figure out which tools are best for your demographic.” Without a fully developed plan for your social networking activity, you could end up meandering throughout the sites and wasting a lot of time.

Here are a few basic questions to ask yourself when forming your social networking strategy:

1. What are the needs of my business? Hopefully, you’re not putting your company name on a social networking account just to send messages back and forth to former high school classmates, so there has to be an impetus. Figure out what your needs are. Are you short-staffed? Is your advertising budget running thin?

2. What am I using the site for? After you’ve established your needs, consider the primary goal of your social networking strategy. Do you want to recruit employees for a certain department? Do you want to market a new line of products? Do you want to connect to more people in your industry?

3. Whose attention am I trying to get? Okay, so you want to market that new line of products, for example. You still need to know your target audience for that product, and with more than 300 million users on Facebook, you'll need to narrow your focus.

Got those answered? Good. Now, consider these questions:

1. Which sites do I want to take on? If you have enough staffing power to handle multiple social networking sites, that’s great. If not, it’s important to focus on one or two, or you could spread yourself too thin and fall victim to the “gaping void” perception, where you end up going days without activity. Your followers will notice.

2. Who’s going to manage my page? Would your social networking activity fall under a current employee’s responsibilities, or do you need to bring on new talent? If you ever find yourself without the staffing resources to manage your page, don’t stick your head in the sand, says Safko. “Find some interns,” he advises. “In most cases, they’ll do it for free.”

3. Who has access to my page? What type of trust level do you have established at your company? Will all of your employees have access to the social network account, or a select few? Take the time to assess the skills and character of those who can log into your page, or you may run into unsavory situations down the road – especially when dealing with former workers.

4. Who’s going to be the personality of my page? Does your company already have a public representative that usually handles speeches, press, etc.? It may be beneficial to rein in that person as the voice of your social networking site. “People buy from other people, not from other companies,” says Safko. “In order to solidify trust, pick someone to represent your brand.”

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