Friday, March 22, 2013

Social Media Networking Tools and Small Business - What Does it Mean to You and How to Get Started

We all witnessed the fiasco that was United Airlines vs. Dave Carroll - and we all saw just how social media can impact business. It really put the whole array of social networking tools squarely in the mainstream discussions of business owners and entrepreneurs.

In the months following that, a whole lot has been written from self-proclaimed business gurus to internationally known media critics. My take here is a basic, nuts and bolts, plain English breakdown from a nerd/business owner.

Before we get to the plan, we need to define "Social Media". At its core, social media is a category or range of tools (including websites and widgets) that allow their users to connect with each other to share information or files. Just like connecting with people face to face, there are rules (etiquette) that differ from community to community and from social group to social group.

If you go to a business networking event to eat the food and race through the room handing out your business cards without actually connecting with anyone, whose fault is it that you didn't get any clients? If you go to an industry event for green business owners and start promoting penthouse condos starting at $2 million, whose fault is it if that doesn't net you business? Does it mean that networking doesn't work? No. Does it mean those groups are not bringing people business? No. It simply means your strategy didn't take into account the other people's needs and interests. You didn't use the tools and opportunities properly.

So how do you manage to get the most out of the time you spend networking online?

1. Take the time to develop your social media plan. Don't start something if you don't have the time to do it properly. You don't have to have every possible account all at once, leaving half-finished or abandoned business profiles littering the web. It just plain doesn't look good.

Realistically evaluate the time you are going to be able to dedicate to social media for your business. Is there someone in your organization who can do it better - and of course, someone you trust with your brand? Can you leverage content you are already creating and port it to these other channels? Are you reading and tracking or clipping news items for your industry anyway - where your list would be of value to either the public or others in your sector?

Investigate what people are already doing in your sector/industry. Find out if and where you are already being discussed. If you are being discussed, you have a natural point to wade into the discussion - but resist the urge to jump in with both feet until you have had the chance to: (a) calm down if what they are saying is negative, (b) consider your response and overall approach, and (c) evaluate the tools that are available to you.

An example: if people are talking on Twitter about how much your company sucks, then clearly, you need a Twitter account. Right now. That's not so that you can get defensive and start telling "your side" of the story, but rather so you can be seen to be interested in your customers and in getting their feedback (and not in a "why don't you say that to my face" manner). Remember, it's a conversation, not an argument.

Next you need to assess which tools are right for you. One of the fun things about social media is that even within a particular medium, there may be multiple tools that let you manage your profile - and some that let you span media (channels).

Imagine you search Twitter and no one has ever mentioned you. Do you need to use this particular social media tool for your business? It depends. Go back to your earlier findings. Watch the trending topics over the span of a couple weeks. Are people talking about key components of your sector? If your business is considered "green" then definitely. Health is another good sector. If you are in the entertainment sector, that's a no-brainer - you need to be there.

Check Facebook. Check Technorati. Do a comprehensive set of Google searches (or whatever your favourite search engine is). Where are your best customers congregating? What are they talking about?

Really, the only way to figure it out is to see what other people are talking about and decide if you can realistically contribute something of value to the existing community - or to create a community if none exists. Don't be afraid to ask your competitors to participate; that is how industry associations get started, plus it adds value to your clientele.

Beyond this, my suggestion is to ask someone who is using the tools for their opinions:

  • Are you happy with your choices?
  • What tools are you using to manage that account? Is it the main website or a third party add-on or application? Are you using anything to be able to repurpose that content elsewhere (e.g. embedding their tweets on your website)?
  • What is missing from this tool? I.e. in a perfect world, what features would you add?
  • If they were to start again, would you use the same tool?
  • How easy is it to switch and keep your content?

Some rules of thumb:

  • Plan to tweet (post to Twitter) at least twice daily, even if it's a retweet of interesting content someone else posted, or a link to a relevant news item.
  • Facebook Fan Pages are way more functional than groups (though I wish they were named something else). You can embed RSS feeds that keep fresh content going through without a whole lot of additional work (make that the landing page).
  • A really good original content blog post is going to take at least 45 minutes. (This one, which started out in my head as 5 simple bullet points, took over two hours.) You can use a mix of original content and pointing to news items of interest to build a comprehensive blog on a topic, or you can use your blog to be a news aggregator. In my experience, the former strategy is the better for keeping people returning to your site because the second strategy leaves you open to imitators, competitors, and things like Google News Alerts replacing your function (and doing it better). Additionally, new content makes your site valuable to other bloggers who can link in and send you more interested visitors.
  • Use aggregators, dashboards, and directory sites. Prep multiple descriptions of varying length for each project and have them at hand to cut and paste.
  • Look for interesting ways to reuse the content across platforms - we originally started tweeting on one of the sites as a faster way to creating a custom list of news items appearing on all pages of the site - editable by the entire team. It was easier to make a twitter account that all editors/writers in house could update (trusted, clearly) rather than have to train them on the CMS. Plus, if people direct an item of interest to us we can quickly retweet it and make it appear.

2. Social media is not an advertising channel. That should be clear from the first point, but I really want to reiterate that. Advertising is pushing your message out to the audience. "Marketing", on the other hand, is every single thing you do that interacts with your clients and potential clients and influences their opinion of you (including advertising). Social media may be part of your marketing plan, but if you start advertising through these channels, expect that part of your plan to fail.

3. Consume more than you create. Are you familiar with that adage in the construction/renovation industry "measure twice, cut once"? Well in using social media as a way to engage your market (notice that I didn't say "advertise your business"), the adage should be: post sparingly, monitor constantly.

To be a legitimate part of the community, you need to be reading and interested in the opinions and postings of other members - even if that is a select, high-end, few. Read what others are saying and comment: blogs, tweets, Facebook updates, LinkedIn news, etc. Use the search function. Find and save the links that let you track current hot topics of discussion. Using the tools properly and saving the search results as bookmarks will save you time and let you go straight to what interests you.

4. Social media is not a 9 - 5 proposition. Just because you are out and about on the weekend doesn't meant the conversation has stopped. There are tools that will let you have messages that are targeted specifically to your username sent to your cellphone - and let you reply by sending a text message back. Sure, it's fine not to be monitoring it in the middle of the night. But for days on end? Enlist a friend or hire and intern or a Virtual Assistant to check in periodically.

Monitor, monitor, monitor. I have seen so many large corporations (the kind that should know better - and that have employees to actually monitor this) start groups and let them get taken over by spammers in the discussion areas, comments, shared links. When you go to the trouble of advertising that you are cutting edge and embracing new technology, nothing say, "we really don't get it" louder than the same spam message posted in every thread and a links section full of affiliate program spam.

5. Separate your real world friends from your business friends. In my universe, Facebook is (primarily) for friends, LinkedIn is for business. Odds are I won't friend you on Facebook and you should not take that personally. My real-world (meat-space, IRL, whatever) friends span the gamut from hackers to drag queens. They all get along very well with each other when they mix, but they enjoy making double entendres out of almost everything I say or flat out making conjecture as to where I was last Saturday night. (For the record, I was in the new office space removing some built-in tables. Not very exciting.)

For a while I was using the Privacy Settings to give business acquaintances a very limited access version of my profile; now I just point them to LinkedIn.

If after reading all of this, you are still offended by that (because you really need to have 5000 Facebook friends to promote yourself effectively), then perhaps social media isn't for you.

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