TWITTER HAS ROUGHLY 32 million active users, while Facebook has more than seven times as many. Sign up, right? Not so fast.
While business owners across the country have glommed onto social networking as a marketing tool, there are thousands of entrepreneurs who can’t seem to “get” social networking. The main reason? For all the benefits social networking delivers — simple, inexpensive and viral — it’s also time consuming. And if you’re not prepared to devote a sizable portion of your day, or, at least, ask an employee to step up, aimlessly participating in social networks can quickly become deflating.
After all, successful social networking isn’t just about attracting as many followers as possible or leaving comments on people’s blog posts. “It’s about knowing why you’re there in the first place,” says Mitch Joel, president of Twist Image, a marketing firm in Montreal. “When you know the strategy and how it ties into the business, that’s where real return on investment happens,” he says. “The tactics, the ‘what,’ that will come out of the strategy.”
Beyond setting up a web site and, if appropriate, making sure your company has profiles on search directories, here are five steps for developing a meaningful social-networking strategy:
Set company goals
Grab a dry-erase marker, a few of your top employees and head to the conference room. To devise an effective social-networking strategy, you need to set some organizational goals. For some businesses, knowing what you hope to achieve via social networking is pretty straightforward. Retailers, for instance, might want to develop an online following to tempt new and existing customers with new product offerings or sales. For companies with less obvious missions, consider how social networking can help. If not to build marketing lists, maybe you want to develop a brand name — and, thus, added recognition in the offline world. Or, perhaps you want to debunk miscommunications or misinformation spreading about your company?
Listen to customers
Think, then, about how your customers interact online — or just listen to them. Small businesses should already be monitoring their brand on a variety of social networks and mobile social networks such as Gowalla and Four Square, says Jeremiah Owyang, a partner at the Altimeter Group, a technology consultancy in San Mateo, Calif. “They should also be watching these networks to understand what customers are saying about them and what they can do to improve,” he says.
No matter what you hear, make contact. If on review site Yelp, for example, a customer criticizes your restaurant’s French fries, don’t just dismiss his comments. Instead, think about a constructive response, says Owyang. Perhaps you can say you will try tinkering with the recipe. Or maybe even offer a coupon and wish that his next experience is better. Either way, let your customer know that you’re working hard to keep him satisfied.
To really engage in conversations with customers, you should produce your own content, says Joel. For instance, when Matt Miller, the founder of rugged tablet computer maker MobileDemand, wanted to demonstrate the resilience of his company’s products, he created videos for YouTube, in which tablets are put through the elements. In one video, MobileDemand’s computer withstood sub-zero temperatures, while in another the PC was tossed down the side of a mountain.
If videos aren’t appropriate, start up a blog revolving around topics that both concern your business and are important to your prospective customer base, says Joel. The idea is to offer content that will be useful to people you’re trying to reach, he says.