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30 Tips for Using Social Media in Your Business

Wading into the fast-moving flow of social media can be daunting to a small business owner with very little time on his hands. Here's Inc.'s comprehensive social media cheat sheet for the time-strapped entrepreneur.
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1. Offer a peek behind the scenes. Offering a sneak preview of new products, services, or features online can help build demand and provide critical feedback to help smooth the launch. For instance, John Doyle, founder of chocolate company John and Kira's in Philadelphia, posts photos of new products on Flickr and invites comments from customers.

2. Harness your expertise. Chances are your company's white paper won't go viral. But sharing knowledge you've gathered through your trade can go a long way toward boosting your brand. Ford Models, for instance, became a YouTube sensation through a series of videos that featured its models giving beauty and fashion tips.

3. Demonstrate what your company does. Because multimedia is so integral to social media, getting connected allows you to express your company's value proposition beyond words. To show just how powerful his company's blenders were, Blendtec's head of marketing, George Wright, created a series of videos showing the appliances churning up such diverse items as a rotisserie chicken, a Rubik's Cube, and an iPhone. The series' 100 million combined views helped boost Blendtec's sales by 700 percent.

4. Put your website's content to work. Want to draw more traffic to your website? Help spread the word by encouraging visitors to share content they enjoy. GotCast, a website that connects television casting directors with aspiring actors, draws new visitors by posting audition videos on Digg and allowing others to share video links on the site. One way to promote the sharing of your site's content is to install a widget, such as AddThis, that automates linking to popular sites.

5. Be candid. In unsure economic times, transparency goes a long way toward retaining and attracting customers. Giving readers the scoop on your company blog is an easy way to keep the lines of communication open. Giacomo Guilizzoni, the founder of San Francisco software company Balsamiq, even posts sales and profit figures to show that his company is on solid financial footing.

6. But be careful what you say about others. When Leslie Richard, owner of a North Carolina clothing company, described Vision Media Television as a "scam," she was slapped with a $20 million lawsuit. While recounting negative experiences with others won't necessarily lead to a court battle, it's best to steer clear of name-calling.

7. Interact with visitors—really. Just putting up a blog or a Facebook fan page won't do much good if visitors sense the flow of conversation only goes one way. In fact, Matt Mullenweg, founder of blogging platform Wordpress, lists not participating in comments as a surefire way to kill a community. Mullenweg and his team field the many suggestions users have for Wordpress through his blog.

8. Don't try to create a stand-in for yourself. With all the other tasks required within your company, it's tempting to outsource managing your social media or even to try automating the process. That can easily backfire, as Joe Pulizzi, founder of Cleveland marketing firm Junta42, learned when he tried sending automated welcome messages to new followers on Twitter. His online contacts quickly called him out for sending out what they perceived to be spam.

9. Don't pretend to be someone else. Thanks to IP address tracking, observers can also quickly tell when company figureheads adopt fake identities for the sake of fluffing up their reputation. Not only can the practice hurt your company's reputation, it could also land you in legal trouble. The plastic surgery Lifestyle Lift had to pay $300,000 in settlement costs to the state of New York for having its employees post flattering reviews of the company without disclosing their affiliation.

10. Help employees bond. Corporations such as IBM have built in-house networks—even virtual worlds reminiscent of Second Life—to link employees working in different locations. Small and medium-sized businesses can take advantage of readily available tools to facilitate collaboration. The Hoffman Agency, a public relations firm, uses Ning, which enables users to build custom social networks, to connect its U.S. staff with employees in Europe and Asia.

11. Reward customer loyalty. Through social media, companies can not only run promotions more frequently than coupons in the mail will permit but also devise more whimsical and engaging campaigns. Sprinkles Cupcakes, a bakery chain based in Beverly Hills, California, uses Twitter to send out daily promotional offers. The tweets, which ask customers to whisper a "password" to receive a free treat, have helped the company draw more than 17,000 followers.

12. See what people are saying about you. A quick search for mentions of your company on Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp can yield a goldmine of information concerning your reputation. Several users on Yelp, for instance, suggested that employees at Quimby's Bookstore in Chicago were less than welcoming. After reading the comments, owner Eric Kirsammer focused on improving customer service. Applications such as monitter and Trackur can help you keep track of the conversation across the Web.

13. Make amends with dissatisfied customers, quickly. Andy Carlson, owner of an Ace Hardware store in Denver, once came across an angry Twitter update from a customer who had bought a tool that broke after one use. He resolved the issue in a matter of minutes by referring the customer to an area store and notified him of Ace's lifetime guarantee. Best of all, he was able to catch the complaint after store hours—and prevent negative word of mouth.

14. Don't go on the defensive. A harsh rebuke of your business on sites like Yelp can not only bruise your ego but also hurt your livelihood. But resist the temptation to lash out in public. Sarah Dunbar, owner of Oakland vintage boutique Pretty Penny, privately responds to less-than-flattering reviewers and encourages them to visit her in person. And keep in mind that you can't please everyone. After Dunbar wrote to one dissatisfied customer, the reviewer accused her of conducting "shady business" by trying to sway opinions.

15. Keep customers in the loop. Frequently on the go? Twitter can help your customers keep track of your latest destination. Kogi Korean BBQ, which operates a food cart in Los Angeles, keeps its Twitter followers constantly informed of its location on the street. The real-time updates help Kogi keep up demand, as customers line up in advance at the broadcasted locations.

16. Find potential customers. A quick keyword search can help you find prospective customers who may not be aware of your company but could nonetheless benefit from your product or service. Bob Scaglion, a senior managing director at New York real-estate management company Rose Associates, generates 100 leads per month on Twitter for his company simply by replying to users whose tweets include phrases such as "moving to New York City" and "no-fee rentals."

17. Reach more markets. Social media can help your company reach multiple markets at a time. Restaurant chain Boloco focuses most of its advertising on Boston, which houses 13 out of its 16 locations. But as an experiment, CEO John Pepper decided to post a copy of a coupon from a local newspaper on Twitter in order to reach customers in Vermont and New Hampshire. Coupon redemptions increased by more than 150 percent as a result.

18. Target your online advertising. Both Facebook and MySpace allow businesses to run ads that attract specific groups of users based on what information they include in their profiles. By running Facebook ads targeted at students at specific colleges, StorQuest Self Storage, which has locations in Arizona, California, Colorado, and Hawaii, increased its number of rentals by more than half.

19. See where your customers are. A growing number of social networks are designed specifically for users on the go, and some, such as the mobile application Foursquare, offer tools specifically for businesses. Frozen dessert chain Tasti D-Lite, for instance, uses Foursquare to gather data on how many people visit its locations and send promotional offers to frequent customers.

20. Let customers help each other out. Including a customer forum on your website or social network profile can help enhance your customer service while building a sense of community. At Poolcenter.com, a swimming pool equipment retailer based in Arlington, Virginia, customers often field each other's inquiries on swimming pool equipment before they reach customer service reps. Get Satisfaction and Fixya are two sites that offer dedicated spaces for customer service forums.

21. Build a community beyond your business. Photo hosting site SmugMug has established itself as a resource for skilled photographers in part by operating a forum, Digital Grin, where members trade advice on topics such as the best techniques for taking photos at night and capturing wedding scenes. With the exception of a support section at the very bottom, the forum is devoted to photography at large, rather than the company's own services.

22. Let customers contribute. FrontPoint Security, a home security provider in McLean, Virginia, began collecting video testimonials from its customers, who filmed themselves with Flip cameras. The videos are posted on FrontPoint's site and on YouTube, and even some customers' personal blogs. FrontPoint's video efforts have helped the company more than triple its sales leads.

23. Help others promote you. Social media can help you find passionate customers who are more than willing to spread the word about your company. Crafts supplies manufacturer Fiskars reached out to scrapbookers by inviting four avid users to blog. Its crafts community, called Fiskateers, has since attracted 5,000 users who serve as brand evangelists.

24. Cultivate relationships that lead to sales. Soon after he joined Twitter, J.R. Cohen, manager of The Coffee Groundz, a Houston coffee shop, began encouraging his followers to visit him in his shop. He began getting to know customers so well that they not only initiated conversations with him through Twitter—they began tweeting orders through the site as well. Now Cohen periodically fields menu requests through Twitter, though he doesn't use the page primarily for that purpose.

25. But don't promote too aggressively. While social network users have proven to be open to marketing—especially if it involves a discount—they're not flocking to Facebook or MySpace to hear sales pitches. If your profile or blog reads like an ad, it will turn visitors away. Kent Lewis, founder of Portland online marketing firm Anvil Media, encourages Twitter users, for instance, to pass along industry news and retweet interesting items from others along with their own promotions.

26. Find ways to engage visitors offline. In March, Cinda Baxter, a retail consultant in Minneapolis, ended a blog post on local business with one simple idea: choose three businesses to support, and spend a combined amount of $50 per month. The post spurred hundreds of inquiries—enough for Baxter to build a standalone website, which has since attracted the support of more than 12,000 businesses. Baxter has used the publicity to bolster her consulting business: she now travels nationwide to advise retailers on building support within their communities.

27. Find influential people in your industry. In addition to maintaining your blog, make sure to keep your eyes open to what others in the industry are buzzing about online. Reading independent blogs and joining industry groups on Facebook and LinkedIn is a good way to join the larger conversation. Spoonflower, a fabric design site based in Mebane, North Carolina, has built its community of more than 40,000 users primarily through word of mouth on crafts blogs.

28. Boost your credibility by helping others. For service providers, establishing yourself as an expert in the field can bring in a steady stream of business. LinkedIn's Answers feature enables business owners to do just that. Heidi Cool, a Web design consultant in Cleveland, browses LinkedIn Answers for inquiries related to her industry and spends one to two hours per week answering them. In one month, she generated 29 leads for her services directly from her responses.

29. Look for talent off the beaten path. While LinkedIn is specifically geared toward professional use, some companies have found other social networks to be effective recruiting tools as well. Jason Averbrook, CEO of the management-consulting firm Knowledge Infusion, found 19 candidates in two days for an open position simply by writing about his search in status updates on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Plaxo, which aggregates contact information from social networks.

30. Connect with potential partners. Because LinkedIn is designed specifically for professional networking, businesses can find a host of valuable contacts there. Josh Steinitz, CEO of NileGuide, a trip planning website based in San Francisco, used LinkedIn to find business partners by identifying companies of interest and then asking his existing contacts to provide introductions. A third of the company's inquiries resulted in eventual partnerships.




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