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Many businesses are using social networks to find customers--so many, in fact, that it's no longer enough to merely have a presence on these networks. To stand out, you need to connect in ways that not only further your ends, but benefit your potential customers as well.

A case in point is an interesting company called Train Signal, the number 12 fastest growing educational company in this year's Inc. 5000. Train Signal provides training for IT professionals to pass certification exams from companies like Microsoft and Cisco, plus information on the exams themselves. It also provide a great deal of free "how-to" articles and videos for IT pros at all skill levels.

I recently spoke with Train Signal's Iman Jalali. "We actively strive to maintain and increase relationship with our customers," Jalali says. "We achieve this using many different avenues, including LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, our blog and forums, and the good old-fashioned phone." They must be doing something right in this economy, since they've broken sales projections for the year and exceeded last year's numbers with two months to go. Roughly 30% of sales are coming from international customers.

How are they using the networks? Their blog is an active space and they spend time and money keeping it up. "I really feel like a company blog should be treated as its own living, breathing entity, rather than a chore," Jalali says. "It should make you feel like you walked into the company's office and you now have a personal connection with that company." (By the way, this sounds a bit like what Mark LePage said in "Building Success By Blogging: An Architect's Story" in July.) Train Signal's blog features entries from many different trainers on different topics. It also has featured polls asking customers what kinds of courses and topics they're looking for. The customers drive the content, and that brings them back.

Train Signal's chief executive, product development director, instructors and bloggers are all on Twitter. CEO Scott Skinger (@trainsignal on Twitter) says that Twitter has helped him learn more about the personal interests of employees, letting him create better relationships with them. Not only do the employees learn about each other on this virtual water cooler; they're also interacting with current and potential customers. When they see someone talking about a competitor's training product, they offer their own as a free trial. They'll do promotions for discounts to followers who respond back to tweets quickly. "Twitter is an essential aspect of our outreach," says Jalali. "I currently regard it as the best way compared to LinkedIn, Facebook and other social networks."

Facebook is a recent addition to their arsenal. An end user fan of their training set up the group without the company's approval. But the fan agreed to make Jalali an administrator so he could keep tabs on the space. They're working to develop more promotions and communication for their Facebook audience.

On LinkedIn, Train Signal finds job candidates, looks at competitor's employee structure and experience, and watches the competition's hiring. They also actively answer questions on the LinkedIn's Questions and Answers forums, showing they know what they're talking about, and gaining friends and supporters by giving away good information.

The IT professionals that are Train Signal's market are especially likely to use many of these social tools. But more and more your customers will be on them as well. Let me know what you think of Train Signal's use of these tools and how you tend to use them yourself.

Last updated: Oct 14, 2008




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