Social Networking – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Your Business.

A friend of mine, Richard was commuting from Scotland to London last year, attending training seminars. He flew with EasyJet, an airline based in the UK. His experience was not good. And all his Facebook friends read about it as he used Twitter on his phone to tweet out his displeasure and frustration (often very amusingly). On one such delayed flight, Richard was tweeting his annoyance out to the world at large, and he received a response from EasyJet customer service, offering sympathy, but no compensation for his troubles. And while good recovery is certainly no substitute for good customer service, Twitter appears to have a place in that customer satisfaction process. On a side note, if you’re taking the step of contacting an annoyed customer, while they’re still very angry at your company you’d better have something more than sympathy to offer them.

Why do I mention this? It’s a good example of how companies can use social networking tools to drive customer satisfaction. 
But let’s take a step back. Let’s talk market penetration. Imagine having a product that, in less than six years, is used by 1 out of every 17 people, and has grown entirely through word of mouth. Now imagine that the number of users of that product, in the 35-49 year old range, DOUBLES every three months.

That product is called Facebook. Currently there are over 500 million registered Facebook users, and one and a half million are small businesses. 

Several questions require answers here: What is social networking? How is that useful for my business? Are there any tips for doing social networking well? We present the basics for you. This is what “normal” looks like, right now.

What is Social Networking?

First and foremost: social networking is a verb. It is a doing word. If you aren’t doing then you are not networking.

Social networks are about connecting with other people. Whether it’s sharing vacation stories or connecting one of your friends to another for a job opportunity, social networking is about connecting. Church choir? Social network. Gym? Social network. Library? Social network. Chamber of Commerce? You better believe it (and join it).

In the last few years, with the popularity of Facebook and YouTube, social networking has taken on a meaning and a life of its own — what did we ever do before MySpace? Well. We did social networking the old-fashioned way. We went out and connected with people, listened to their stories, and exchanged business cards. Guess what? It works the same online as it works face-to-face.

There isn’t a “trick” to dealing with online social networking. It works just like real life. If you approach someone in a coffee shop and immediately start telling them how wonderful your company and products are, they’re likely going to bid you good day. Or something less polite. If you strike up a conversation about the notebook they’re carrying, or the kind of coffee they’re getting, they’ll probably be receptive — maybe they’ll even take your business card when you offer it.

Make no mistake, this requires effort. You should expect to keep up to date with your network — participate in your friends’ and clients’ lives, give information when that’s appropriate, and get recognized as an expert at what you do. But that effort is rewarded with positive word of mouth. Yes, for most business owners out there, that is the intangible prize for having a social networking presence.

But that positive word of mouth really does have a value. The Nielsen Company, which compiles TV viewing figures, also compiles a biannual “Trust, Value and Engagement in Advertising” report. The 2009 report shows that 90 percent of consumers trust recommendations from people they know, while only 41percent trust sponsored ads on Web pages. It’s why online reputation management is such a growing industry. Think about it — when you buy things on Amazon, don’t you check out the reviews? How about Hotels.com or TripAdvisor for vacations and business travel? Consumer reviews are everywhere, and in Web 2.0, the consumer really is king.

How Is Social Networking Useful to My Business?

And let’s just replace the word “useful” with “valuable” here. The value of having a social media presence is in the trust you can inspire in current and potential customers. Our social networks start with the people we know (and presumably trust). After that we go to the friends of people we know, who we can build relationships with — again, that’s trust. We add in companies and service providers recommended by those trusted people.

A second advantage — constant contact with your client base. You can respond to their questions, and even use a survey site like SurveyMonkey to do your own market research. In a recent survey conducted by Forrester Research and shop.org, 96 percent of retailers surveyed ranked customer ratings and reviews as an effective or very effective tactic to driving conversion. Social networking channels like Facebook can be very useful for encouraging that feedback.

Crowdsourcing opinion can help with product development, and give you a market intelligence edge over your competition. And that opinion isn’t necessarily local, if your network extends to national or international levels, you can find out what does and doesn’t work in different regions and adjust your marketing to be more effective.

If you’re thinking of hiring someone you might check out their Facebook page just to see if the person they presented in the interview is the person they are outside of work. Remember that people are always on their best best behavior for job interviews, and in the current market may “forget” to tell you something that’s relevant to your decision-making process. Yes, it seems a little bit “Big Brother,” but you’ll thank us for the advice when the person you are hiring shows up in Facebook and has a hobby or two that make you think twice about whether they’d be the right fit for your company. To be clear, you absolutely should not discriminate against any of the protected classes, but if the candidate didn’t mention that they do Evel Knievel stunt re-enactments on their weekends, that might be worth considering. 

The other side of that hiring coin is that you might find the ideal employee in your network, and reduce the cost of hiring, or you could get a recommendation from your network about someone who fits your hiring needs.
Remember the story about my friend, Richard, and his experience with EasyJet? There’s a narrow line between responsive and … well, stalking. 
Responsive is good, but exercise caution if you’re thinking of responding to customer concerns vented on Twitter — if your customers aren’t expecting to get into a conversation with you, it can be disconcerting for them, and at a time when they’re already upset with you. Catching your customers off-guard, making them feel pressured into resolving the issue on your schedule, could potentially backfire on you. So pay attention to what they say and how they say it — and reschedule the conversation for a time that suits your customer.

Tips for Doing Social Networking Right

Okay, this is where the rubber meets the road. Debra Murphy, President of Masterful Marketing based in Marlboro, Mass., said, “Social media is a channel, not a marketing strategy. If people don’t understand the fundamentals of marketing, that effort on social media and internet marketing is wasted by sending the wrong message to the wrong audience.” It’s a problem Murphy overcomes by going back the the start and asking clients if they have a marketing plan. 

After you have your plan, Murphy says, “you need a really good Web site” to drive your traffic to. If you want to sell something, you need a compelling call to action, if your plan is to educate, you’ll want something intuitive and easy to navigate.

If you’re thinking of using social media to reach your customers and clients, Murphy’s advice is simple — “Go back to your marketing plan, figure out where your audience is.” If you don’t know where your customers and clients hang out, you have no hope of reaching them.

The Web site CMO.com recently published a Guide to the Social Landscape which is a wonderful tool for figuring out which social media channels best suit your needs.

There are a lot of places you can call home, but most businesses would benefit from accounts at Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, and if you can integrate them using a tool like Hootsuite, it will make your life a lot easier.

When you know who your target audience is, and where to find them, the next things to consider are the tools to use to reach them, and the message you want to send.

“You’ve got to use different tools to attract and retain [customers],” Murphy said. “Facebook is more engaging. It’s more social than LinkedIn. I wish there were more conversations on LinkedIn. I don’t see Twitter having the biggest advantage, and if someone has time constraints I’ll have them set up a Twitter account, but most of their stuff is going to come through Facebook.

Murphy endorses the use of Facebook Pages to promote your business. Facebook only allows people, not organizations, to have a profile, but you can have Fan Pages for your business. She also recommends that 80 percent of your updates and tweets are about other people and companies that would be interesting to your followers and friends. The other 20 percent should be used to promote you and your company.
The short version of this is something you already knew: conduct your business online the way you would do it offline — in a way that makes your clients want to tell their friends about you.
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