by J.J. McCorvey

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.


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.


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.'


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.

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.

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.

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