Are social networking sites the business tools of the future? Time will tell. But if you run a small business in these changing times, ignore them at your own risk.
Many of your competitors are already networking and blogging their way to a stronger Web presence, enhanced credibility, and more customers. Yes, some social networks are hangouts for your teenaged sons and daughters. But, used wisely, they can benefit businesses too, says Lee Aase, a veteran media relations manager with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. His employer has put him in charge of articulating the clinic’s message through sites such as Facebook.
Small Businesses are finding value on Facebook. Take the Visa Business Network, a small-business only social network within Facebook, for example. More than 21,000 members joined the network within four months of its June 2008 launch.
"The way that most businesses grow is by word of mouth, by recommendations, and by peers and communities," says Aase, who writes and blogs about marketing through social networks. "The whole concept of social media is a lot like birds of a feather flocking together" — in other words, people with a common interest or objective interacting online, he says. Social networks enable that interaction, in professional but also fun and interesting ways, Aase says.
While there aren't many strict rules about using social networks, there are dos and don’ts, as well as strategies to employ to get ahead. Here are tips I’ve compiled from experts.
1. Create profiles that avoid hype, but establish your credentials and expertise. The Visa Business Network and most other social-networking sites start you with a profile page. Seize this opportunity to market your skills and position your business, as well as provide the necessary contact information and a Web site address. Avoid blatant promotion. But if you are a credible expert on a given topic, brand yourself as such. In the Visa Business Network, for example, make sure your business name, Web site address and link, and contact info are prominent in your Business Profile. Also, be honest, but not bashful, when listing your areas of expertise. And upload a picture for your profile, one that positions you as accessible, but professional. No party pictures, of course.
2. Use keywords in your profiles to get found more easily. Keywords are words that potential clients, customers, or partners are likely to use in searching for a business that does what you do. Make sure your profile includes an appropriate range of keywords that represent your business, as profiles on many sites are captured by search engines, notes Jinger Jarrett, a blogger and Internet marketing consultant based near Atlanta. The Visa Business Network’s Business Finder feature is where fellow members use keywords to search for businesses they’d like to know more about. So, if you are, say, a professional caterer seeking clients in the Boston area, you want to make sure your profile contains the keywords that your target audience might use to find your company.
3. Join groups and forums and share your expertise. "Get in there and start talking," Jarrett says, about issues and trends affecting your industry, and about questions and problems people may have where you offer a knowledgeable answer or solution. Make sure you have something valuable to say, as well as the experience or credentials to back up your comments. Establishing credibility and trust online is as important as making yourself known. "Commenting on blog posts is one of the best things you can do online," adds Leslie O’Flahavan, a partner in E-WRITE, a Web content training and consulting firm in Silver Spring, Md. Credible comments add to any discussion and can help position you as someone with expertise in a given niche. O’Flahavan suggests these tips for commenting: Keep emotion to a minimum; proof-read your comments; be fresh and interesting; add links to Web pages for details or background, and avoid repeating what’s already been said. Caution: Know that your words can come back and haunt you. Avoid saying damaging things you may regret later.
4. Seek out recognized authorities in your industry or field. Social networking is the online version of good old fashioned person-to-person networking — but in many ways is easier. Use Business Finder yourself to find experts or business owners you’d like to meet in your field. Add them to your list of associates, accompanied by a message introducing yourself and explaining why you’d like to meet this person or get to know his or her company online. Be confident, but make sure your motives are business-related. While you are at it, take advantage of the Ask the Expert and the Resource Center features in the Visa Business Network. Ask the Expert a question about starting or running a business and you’ll get an authoritative answer from a recognized expert at The Wall Street Journal or Entrepreneur magazine. The Resource Center provides expert advice on a range of small-business topics.
5. Promote your blog on social networking sites. Blogging is the foundation of any social-media strategy for small businesses, says John Jantsch, a small-business expert who runs Duct Tape Marketing in Kansas City, Mo. “This is the doorway to all other social marketing,” he says. Jantsch tells of success stories such as Brown Lures, a Texas coast fishing lures business that uses a blog to reach fishing guides up and down the Gulf Coast, and Lincoln Sign Co. in Lincoln, N.H., which draws customer interest with detailed blog posts on how it makes each and every sign. If you do blog, make sure you promote your blog with a link in your profile. Also, if you aren’t already, use RSS feeds to distribute your posts and to surface them on social networking sites, and be sure to track and respond to comments. If you aren’t blogging, check out free blogging tools such as Wordpress and Blogger. Seize the opportunity to share your company news and thought leadership. Many of your competitors already are: A 2008 study by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research found that 39% of the small businesses in the Inc. 500 are blogging (compared to just 11.6% of large companies in the Fortune 500).
6. Build your network, but be smart about “collecting” associates and friends. The Business Finder tool in the Visa Business Network is a great tool for networking and prospecting, but shouldn’t be used shamelessly to acquire a large volume of associates to attempt to sell to. High-powered marketing campaigns based on collecting abundant e-mail addresses from Business Finder and similar tools can backfire. Also, if you do nothing but promote a new business or product or book, people in your network will lose interest and begin avoiding you, Aase says. Having associates who value your passions and expertise, and who care to network with you regularly, is best for your business.
7. Use street smarts to avoid identity theft and a barrage of spam. Unfortunately, social networking sites, like the rest of the Internet, attract unscrupulous sellers as well as scam artists and thugs. Be cautious about the personal information you post. For example, never publish your Social Security number, and list your day of birth, but not the year you were born in, to guard against ID theft. And when in doubt, reject an association or friend request.
8. Resist the urge to post ads for your business on site pages, comments, and friend e-mails. In an October 2008 study by IDC, more than 50% of the consumers surveyed found ads on social networking sites to be “annoying.” Hard-nosed marketing is a no-no on social networks, and posting ads could color your business as one that doesn’t “get it.”
“If you do nothing but promote your new book or new business or product, people in your network will lose interest,” Aase says. "It's all about conversation — not about push."
9. Experiment with different social networks, but focus on the few that give you results. No one knows your business better than you, and promoting a business via social networking today is more an art than a science. That means browsing and experimenting with different social networks and niche audience sites (examples: Ryze.com for entrepreneurs, Eons.com for baby boomers, CafeMom for moms, and Disaboom.com for consumers with disabilities) is worth your while. Most are free to join and use.
A social network such as Twitter.com may not seem a fit for your business until you realize how easy it is for you to follow what many blogs and Web sites are saying about your industry, your competitors, even your own business, on a daily basis. Twitter also provides you a quick and interesting way to stay in touch with customers and prospects. Check it out.
But as noted blogger Seth Godin says, having a presence on numerous social networks and blogs is not likely to get you a “critical mass” of customers and prospects. “One follower in each of 20 places is worthless,” Godin says. “Twenty connected followers in one place is a tribe. It’s the foundation for building something that matters.” Through experimenting, you may just find your tribe.
10. Get over the “fear of negative feedback.” While social networks won’t address all of your marketing needs, avoiding them because you fear possible negative feedback is a bad move. You’ll be letting more savvy competitors gain exposure and stature in communities that you should very well be a part of.
It is true that dissatisfied customers, negative reviewers, or people seeking to damage your name online can make life difficult. But you face these risks whether you delve into social networks or not. And there are ways to protect your business name and to successfully manage your reputation online.
Some quick tips, courtesy of blog posts by online reputation management experts:
• Monitor your online presence continuously, so you are aware of what is being published and not caught off-guard.
• Make your point in forums without pointing fingers. In other words, avoid getting into arguments or name-calling.
• Carefully and thoughtfully respond to attacks, but don’t let conflicts escalate. You’ll just be giving search engines more to link to. • Seek legal counsel for truly slanderous attacks.
• Have a biography on your business Web site and make sure it and your site are prominent on search engines when people search under your name or your business’s name.