IF THE KEY
to business success is building a raft of loyal customers that, say, frequent your store over another’s, then social-networking web sites are increasingly useful tools for getting them there.
Online social networks, which are interactive groups where people typically post information about themselves and connect through common interests such as schooling and political ideologies, attract millions of users a day. In February alone, Facebook logged more than 30 million unique visitors in the U.S., while News Corp.’s MySpace, the largest social-networking site, claimed nearly 68 million. (News Corp. is co-owner of SmartMoney.com.) Overall, social networks welcomed about 121 million unique U.S. visitors last month, up 14% from nearly 107 million the year before, according to research firm comScore.
Within social media, a growing number of users are latching on to “niche” sites that cater to any number of specific interests, such as Chowhound.com (eating), LibraryThing.com (books) and Yelp.com (trends in specific cities). Niche sites typically give visitors the opportunity to size up various products and services, which can influence other users’ buying decisions. That type of user-generated content carries huge potential for small businesses, says David Silver, author of “Smart Start-Ups,” a book about profiting from online communities. A small business that has, for example, a well-received product on social networks can ascend in the ranks while larger companies, which may have big marketing budgets but subpar products, can easily sink.
If you’re not using social networking to reach potential customers, it’s time to start. Some business owners post information about their products or services to group message boards while others send out relevant information via targeted email blasts. Others even create their own forums around specific ideas or causes. No matter which avenue you choose, here’s a general roadmap for getting connected via social networks:
Your first step in using social-networking platforms is to figure out what you hope to achieve, says Jay Deragon, the co-author of “The Emergence of The Relationship Economy.” For instance, he says, business owners who want to increase their profiles globally might opt for sites like Bebo, which is big in the U.K., or Friendster, which has emerged as a favorite in Southeast Asia.
Jessica Elsas, the founder of Soft, a line of clothing for kids with sensory disorders, and a special education teacher in New York, says her mission online is threefold. In addition to raising seed money, Elsas is currently using her profiles on about seven social networks to build awareness of her business so that when Soft’s e-commerce store launches in December there will be sufficient demand for her products. Using social networks “has helped me build a very relevant database of people who are connected and interested in my business,” she says.
Lastly, Elsas is using networks such as MySpace, YouTube and Google’s general networking site, Orkut, to generate invaluable market research. “If I find someone with a child who has a sensory disorder, I send them a survey,” she says. “It’s my hope that people will connect to me as an individual as well as eventually to my products.”