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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.

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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.

Dig Deeper: Overcoming Feelings of Social Media Inadequacy

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.'

Dig Deeper: Why Demographics Are Crucial to Your Business

How to Use Social Networking Sites to Drive Business: Choosing Your Site
 
After you've answered those questions, you can choose which social networking site, or sites, would best fulfill the requirements of your strategy. Though many of the sites are similar in nature, they can all be categorized by the different purposes they serve. These are the basic types of social networking sites:
 
1.    'Free for all' social sites: Some sites that fall under this category are Facebook, MySpace, Ning, and Friendster. Each of these sites primarily serve as a nexus of friends and associates who want to socialize. Ning, for example, has become popular for connecting classmates and helping to set up reunions. The profiles are usually personable, inviting, and can be customized with add-ons and apps.
 
2.    Professional sites: Examples of these include LinkedIn, FastPitch, and Plaxo. The professional site can be utilized as an online professional contact database, or 'rolodex,' but it's also where people go to update employment information about themselves.
 
3.    Industry-specific sites: These sites allow you to connect to people who are in your industry. I-Meet, for example, is specifically geared toward event planners, while ResearchGATE is a community for researchers in the science or technology field. Industry sites help you to narrow your search when looking for services, or people with skills in certain fields. You may even want a particular department of your company, such as IT or advertising, to open an account on one of these sites.

Dig Deeper: Embracing Social Networking in IT

How to Use Social Networking Sites to Drive Business: Setting Up Your Profile

Your profile is the online representation of your brand and company, so it's important to know what to add and what to avoid. Here are a few tips to be mindful of as you create your profile:
1.     Don't be afraid to get a little personal. Facebook profiles, for example, allow you to include things like hobbies, favorite music, etc. Including tidbits like these can make your page warmer and more personable. 'Some personal information is valuable, because it may create a bond with a customer,' says Safko.

2.     But not too personal. Don't be the 'TMI' poster boy or girl, (i.e. 'The wife and I are on our way to have dinner – kids are with the grandparents'). Create another page that's just yours, sans company activity.

3.     Share photos and videos. Adding multimedia to your page gives flair, and offers customers an exclusive look inside your company. LinkedIn even has an add-on that allows you to post presentations and slideshows.

4.     But no office party snapshots. Though the atmosphere of Facebook is still relatively laid back, you want to maintain the perception that you're serious about your product and customers. Pictures involving Santa hats and alcohol probably shouldn't be in your albums.

5.     Set privacy settings. On most of these sites, you can control what people see on your profile, such as pictures and blog posts, and you can even limit what other people post. Depending on the nature of your company, you should consider these restrictions. Are there any embarrassing pictures of you floating around that you might not want linked to your page?
 
6.    But don't be a blank slate. Imagine coming across the profile of one your favorite brands, and all that's there is a picture and headquarters location. A little disheartening, right? If and when you do enact some privacy settings, try to keep the page lively.

Dig Deeper: Top 10 Awkward Social Media Moments

How to Use Social Networking Sites to Drive Business: Social Network Marketing

Marketing through social networks isn't as much about selling your product, as it is about engaging your followers. 'A lot of people have started Facebook fan pages with no clue to how it can benefit them,' says Jim Tobin, president of Ignite Social Media, a social media marketing agency based in Cary, North Carolina. 'You have to think above your product.' The goal of the community-based environment of social networking sites is to provide a platform for an open, honest conversation.

The companies that are most successful at converting followers into dollars are those who interact most with the users and frequently post content related to their brand. Facebook's Fan Page is probably the best example of how you should be marketing you company through social networking sites. The page acts as an upgraded user profile for brands, companies, and organizations to be as involved as the users, and has plenty of tools to help you do so. As users become 'fans' of your page, all of your activity appears in their News Feed each time they log on. There's also a useful feature called the Insights tool, which allows you to analyze page views, the demographics of your fans, and the number of people who view (or stop viewing) your News Feed posts.
 
Outdoor Technology, a Los Angeles-based manufacturer of clothing and gear for skiers and snowboarders, initially sold merchandise directly to retailers. But after the company began actively using their Fan Page last September, revenue from e-commerce went from zero to $25,000 in three months, says CEO Caro Krissman. The page has now amassed over 11,000 fans. 'We saw Facebook as sort of a sweet spot for where our target market is,' says Krissman. 'With the ability to target users in such a focused way, we felt like there really wasn't a better forum to go about [marketing online].'
 
'Fan' features your company should be using:

1.     Comment on other users' content or profile posts. By responding to what your followers post to your profile, you show them that you appreciate their interaction. If they know they have your attention, they'll keep coming back.

2.     Ask questions on your wall. Facebook users love to be heard. It can be surprising how many responses one question can elicit. 'It starts to snowball,' says Safko. 'What you'll find is that the conversation will branch off and start another one.'
 
3.     Posting links or threads. 'One thing fan pages lets you do that Web pages don't is encourage viral spread,' says Tobin. If you have any content that you want to circulate quickly, the fan page is the perfect tool.
 
4.     Posting relevant events. By posting upcoming events your company may be part of or hosting, you can help drive more attendees to the function. And for those who can't come, they get a glimpse at how active your business is within the community or industry.

Dig Deeper: How to Advertise on Facebook

Social Network Promotions
Remember, it's called a social network, not a 'business network.' Coming off as a pushy or shrewd salesperson peddling a product could scare away your Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections. Remember to be genuine and personal.
 
Here are the things you should do when promoting your company or product through social networking sites:
1.    Make it benefit-based. Make the customer feel that they need to participate in the promotion. Is the product or feature available for a limited time? Are you offering exclusively to your followers on a particular network? 
 
2.    Talk about new or uncommon features. Even if you have a relatively popular product, there may be some things consumers don't know about it. What are some new or different ways it can be used?
 
3.    Include some discounts and savings. Offering discounts on products is usually a shoe-in to grab customers' attention. Krissman, of Outdoor Technology, says he posts promotional codes that users can fill out on the company's website and get up to 30 percent off a product. Not only does it drive more buyers to your product, but it also brings more followers to your page.
 
Here are the things you shouldn't do when promoting your company or product through social networking sites:
1.    Don't continually have sales-related messages. There are other ways to promote besides selling your product. Comment or ask questions about news or topics in your industry. 'They will easily ignore you or unsubscribe you if you continue to push a sale,' says Tobin.
 
2.    Don't set up an expectation, then cheat on it. If you announce to your followers that your purpose is to give advice, don't turn around and start selling. 'If you violate that expectation, people are going to get upset and they're going to leave,' says Tobin. Again, make the sale subtle – how can your product help them achieve the advice you're giving?

Dig Deeper: 6 Social Networking Faux Pas to Avoid

How to Use Social Networking Sites to Drive Business: Social Network Recruiting

Social recruiting is an effective way to utilize social networks to find the best candidate for any open positions at your company. While the past few years saw the rise of job boards like Careerbuilder.com and Monster.com, the growing prominence of social networks have transformed the way businesses build their best team. Instead of relying on the 'come one, come all' approach, the detailed personal information contained in profiles, such as interests and job history, allows businesses to employ social networking sites to target the specific audience or skill set they want to pull from.
 
According to an annual social recruitment survey published by Jobvite, an online service that helps businesses consolidate the resources of social media sites, 80 percent of companies used or planned to use social networking to find and attract candidates in 2009, with LinkedIn being used by 95 percent of the respondents and Facebook usage growing from 36 percent in 2008 to 59 percent in 2009.
 
'It's like what's happened to the ad industry,' says Dan Finnigan, CEO of Jobvite and former general manager of Yahoo! HotJobs. 'It used to be that you would buy a big ad to get the consumer's attention, but more and more companies are relying on online advertising software that puts that ad right in front of them based on data, like the other ads they click on. Social recruiting is analogous to that.'
 
The Benefits of Social Network Recruiting

Here are some of the primary advantages that social recruiting affords small businesses:
1.     Empowers your employees to distribute job information. These days, most, if not all of your employees probably have a profile on a social networking site. By enabling them to post information about open positions, you multiply your searching reach by the thousands.

2.     Helps you put the passive job candidate in your crosshairs. Job boards are mostly used by people who are proactively looking for positions.  But what about the perfect potential employee who may not be scouring Careerbuilder.com every day?
 
3.    A low-cost method of finding high-quality candidates. When looking for job candidates, it takes time to sift through resumes of unqualified applicants, and many job boards charge fees to post openings. Social recruiting helps you zone in on the best candidates, for free.
 
Tools to Help You Socially Recruit
1.    Custom searches. Searching only by name and location doesn't cut it when looking for the perfect employee. LinkedIn has one of the most thorough searches of all the sites, allowing you to sift through profiles by company, industry, college, and even how many 'degrees' you are from the person.
 
3.    Updating your status message. When you or your employees update your statuses, it pops up on your friends' home page, and sits atop the profile until it's changed. 'My company is looking for … ,' is sure to snag replies.
 
4.    Linking to stories and external content. Both Facebook and LinkedIn enable users to post external content to their profiles. By linking to articles and blogs that contain positive news about your business, you show potential candidates that it's not just your social network connections that adore your company.

Dig Deeper: Small Business "Success Studies" Using LinkedIn

How to Use Social Networking Sites to Drive Business: Privacy and Legal Issues
 
Though social networking can certainly be a fun way to help you expand your company, there are plenty of issues surrounding privacy and legalities that you should always be aware of when searching for employees, and even after you've hired them. 'The laws [regarding online privacy and or hiring online] generally apply the same [as existing state laws],' says Megan Erickson, an associate at Des Moines, Iowa-based Dickinson, Mackaman, Tyler & Hagan law firm and author of Erickson's Blog on Social Networking and the Law. 'But now that there are all these different kinds of social media, they combine to make it a very unique environment.'
 
Here are some of the most important things to keep in mind to help you steer clear of legal trouble when dealing with potential or current employees and social networking sites:
1.    Don't use fake profiles. Using a fake profile when adding employees to monitor their activity can constitute as an invasion of privacy, Erickson says. 'That's just asking for lots of trouble,' she says.
 
2.    Add a social media section to your handbook. Including language about social media in your personnel policy is paramount, especially if you plan on integrating it heavily in your company's operations.
 
3.    Beware of existing federal and state laws. It may help to prep yourself on the many federal and state laws regarding anti-discrimination and privacy, Erickson says, so that if you do come across an employee's wayward photo or disparaging status message, you'll be knowlegeable about how to proceed with disciplinary action.

Dig Deeper: Do You Need a Social Media Policy?

Resources
 
To learn more about using social networking sites:

•    The Social Media Bible: Tactics, Tools, and Strategies for Business Success, by Lon Safko and David Brake, is a great guide for business owners and executives who want to use the power of social media to grow their companies. Visit the website, TheSocialMediaBible.com, to connect with other professionals looking to do the same.
 
•    Megan Erickson's blog, Erickson's Blog on Social Networking and the Law, posts up-to-date news on legal issues surrounding social media sites.

•    Mashable is a great resource for news, advice, and jobs concerning all things social media.
 
•    John Jantsch, author of Duct Tape Marketing – The World's Most Practical Small Business Marketing Guide, also runs a marketing blog for small businesses called Duct Tape Marketing. Check out what he says about the 7 Truths of Social Media Marketing.
 
Some sites to consider joining for social networking:

•    Facebook: The most popular social networking site, it allows you keep up with friends, colleagues, and classmates and features a stream-lined, easy-to-use interface.

•    MySpace: Geared toward the younger crowd, this interactive site lets you connect with friends and tweak your profile with extras like themes and music playlists.

•    LinkedIn: This site is strictly professional, and for good reason. You can keep up with colleagues, find employees, and network with others in your field.

•    Bebo: Another primarily social site for friends that allows users to express themselves through media and interactive environments.

•    FastPitch: This professional site serves as a great platform for growing companies to market themselves, allowing you to post events, press, and submit keywords to increase your profile's SEO strength.

•    Friendster: A social networking site for friends that promotes connections between international users and also boasts "Fan Profiles" similar to Facebook's.

•    I-Meet : A professional site where you can establish valuable contacts and potentially save money on event planning.

Last updated: Jan 25, 2010

J.J. MCCORVEY is a reporter at Inc. magazine, where he covers a wide range of topics, including technology and business research. He has covered metro news for The Detroit News, and his work has been featured in Men's Fitness.
@jmccorvey




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