There has been a lot of buzz lately about “social media” and other “web 2.0” technologies that can supposedly “change the way we do business” and all that. A lot of it is hype and nonsense, of course, but there are still useful and serious ways that small businesses, groups and individuals can use services such as Linked In, Twitter, Facebook, blogs and media-sharing through Flickr or YouTube to improve their visibility and make themselves more accessible and useful to clients. The trick is in understanding what business purpose social media fulfills and not wasting time on things that don’t have a clear business purpose.
As a general rule, social media is most useful when it serves the same purpose as newsletters or small advertisements have done in conventional, brick-and-mortar business. Understand where you are saying something, to whom, and why.
Have a Purpose to Your Presence
In helping real-world businesses think about and deploy social media it is vital that one understand the business: what the product is, the market, how that market thinks and what message one wants to convey. In the mid 1990’s, for example, many people thought that they needed a web site, and hundreds of them spent thousands of dollars on nonsense to become “modern.” During this time I turned down a number of folks who wanted web sites because I did not think it made sense for them to have one when they could not answer two simple questions: (1) what business purpose does a web site serve and (2) what is the very next thing you want a client to do upon visiting your web site?
If one cannot answer these questions of market, business purpose and result, I recommend you not deploy any sort of social media.
Top of Mind, Easy to Find, Trusted Advisors
In general there are three things that almost every business wants from social media, all of which are related to accessibility and credibility. First is presence, to be “top of mind.” Coca-cola does not spend hundreds of millions each year because people have not heard of them, but because they want to be foremost in our thoughts. The first vendor one thinks of when a need comes up is at the top of the customer’s mind, making the customer more likely to initiate a transaction. Once the customer thinks of you, the second key thing is that you are “easy to find” with an Internet or local search. By listing oneself on a few social media sites (with a web site and phone number) one dramatically increases one’s chance of being found. Once they find you, though, why should they bother? The third key thing is to use social media over time to establish oneself as a “trusted advisor.” Through blog posts and occasional, carefully-considered updates, a business or individual can dramatically increase their credibility and usefulness in a way that draws clients and opportunities in the future by increasing the value of the Internet today.
Understanding the Tools of Social Networking
“Social media” is a sub-set of various “web 2.0” technologies which focus on creating connections between and amongst a variety of user-generated content. For a business, this makes it is easier to share information on the Internet without understanding the technical aspects of writing HTML or scripting, as well as to keep in touch with colleagues in a non-invasive way as time allows. Social networking tools include sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and Linked In, each of which has its own idiosyncracies and uses.
MySpace is for Teens, Bands & Comics
MySpace was an early break-out site which has always suffered from a variety of social and technical problems. The technical problems are not worth going into, but the site is mechanically unreliable and untrustworthy. Socially, MySpace is primarily used by bands, comedians and very young people who largely use it as a free and easy way to put up a web site to exchange notes with other MySpace friends. Unless you are a stand-up comedian, a band, or your business requires extensive connection to this demographic, I would never recommend MySpace. From 2007 on, the primary use of MySpace has been to establish one’s identity through a simple presence which points elsewhere. The less time one spends in creating a MySpace “profile” the better.
Facebook Business “Pages” (not Profiles) for Business
Facebook was originally more selective than MySpace and has always been more sophisticated and stable. Initially encouraging people to use their real names and building from a moderately elite group of college students and faculty, Facebook had more users, with better demographics and more stability. In many ways Facebook has been able to do what Friendster hoped to do, and has a logical business plan. I encourage business users who wish to establish a personal profile on Facebook to do so, for social contacts, but to create a separate Facebook “page” for their business, and to use that for business visibility.
Facebook “pages” and “groups” are very much *not* personal profiles, and can be used to broadcast information about one’s business to Facebook users (of which there are millions) or (in the case of organizations) to encourage interaction among Facebook users. Facebook profiles, groups and pages all allow the sharing of “notes,” “links,” “events,” pictures and videos. A Facebook page is like a web page, primarily for Facebook users, and businesses can easily use it as a way to broadcast information about business events such as presentations, new products or sales. Behind the scenes, it also provides demographic information on “fans” and allows demographically-targeted notices. Since Facebook users tend to be socially and geographically focused, a page where customers can become “fans” makes a lot of sense for local, service-oriented businesses. It tends to be less relevant for other businesses, but may be incorporated into a general marketing strategy.
Linked In as a Resumé Hub for Other Connections
Early on I referred to LinkedIn.com as “MySpace for grown-ups” and the primary use of Linked In is to post one’s resume and develop contacts to other professionals one knows “in real life.” One can ask for and give recommendations for others, much as one would leverage personal contacts for a job search or at a cocktail party. Linked In has superb penetration in search engine results, and is the single resource I suggest for job seekers and small business owners for whom name-recognition and “findability” is key. Unlike focused “job boards” such as Monster, Linked In has a variety of professional groups one can take part in as one chooses, and options to post links to other resources such as online “google doc” presentations or professional-presence pages such as professional blogs where one can provide short and relevant reviews or articles. Linked In “status updates” can be used to highlight professional events or tell others of relevant professional resources in a non-intrusive way that helps to increase professional credibility.
Twitter and the Proper Place of “Tweets”
As one of the newer technologies, micro-blogging tools such as Twitter are relatively new, but I suggest that most businesses use them as they might radio or print advertising: for occasional updates on special events. To think of Twitter as a very short newsletter is best for most businesses, in my judgement, and a Twitter feed should almost always be linked to Facebook status if there is a Facebook page, with Tweets providing links to other resources (such as an online calendar or blog article) if possible. The primary value of Twitter at the moment is (A) to remind people of one’s existence, (B) providing timely reminders of special events and (C) sending traffic to more substantive resources or updates. I absolutely discourage personal use of Twitter or direct messaging for most business users.
There are some professions or professional organizations where common directories exist, and it is always a good idea to take advantage of those. Local Harvest is a free directory that showcases agricultural businesses, for example, while state bar associations also list lawyers. There may be other organizations you are part of and if these are real directories that you feel your colleaugues, clients or customers might actually use to look for you, take the time to create a basic profile there, especially if it can be used to point toward your main web presence. Generally I discourage people from taking part in “pay to play” directories, as these are mostly a waste of money, but you probably know your industry better than I.
If there is an uglier word than “blog” in modern English, I don’t know it, and the associations that it brings are almost as ugly. When I use the term “blog” I am referring to the technology behind web pages that makes it possible for ordinary people to quickly create web content through a combination of SQL databases, scripting and CSS. For most people “blog” means a self-indulgent diary, and understanding the difference between these two things is crucial to using blogs intelligently for business purposes.
Although blog technology can be used for puerile narcissism on sites such as LiveJournal and DiaryLand, it is also used quite usefully by serious publications such as the New York Times, O’Reilly and CNET. For small groups, individuals and businesses, blog technology and sites such as Blogspot, WordPress and TypePad are far and away the simplest way to establish web pages, simply by removing obvious date references, and each technology has its advantages. Much of the content your business has already created can be productively repurposed for a blog.
Blogspot Is Simple, With Many Solid Widgets
Blogspot is owned by Google and makes it very easy for individuals to begin writing on any subject that interests them, while providing rich multimedia tie-ins to other sites such as Flickr or content hosted through Google Docs or YouTube. Blogspot does this through various code plug-ins it calls “widgets” and Blogspot is a very useful tool for business folks who wish to easily present a series of educational essays or pointers toward trends within an industry. The sorts of things one would publish in a newsletter lend themselves quite nicely to blog posts, and the ability to post pictures makes them an excellent way to publicize events or sales. Consultants and others who need to educate the public about a given topic, point out good articles or books that help people understand the value that they bring might also benefit greatly from blogspot’s technology. Blogs are a terrific way to repurpose a variety of content that one is already creating, and archive it in a place where it continues to build web hits and value, demonstrating one’s skill and abilities over time. The trick is to use the blog to store and promote material that is timely or has already been created, not to add one more task to an already-busy business day.
WordPress is Versatile, Static and Widely Deployed
WordPress is a widely-used platform for many bloggers, and can be installed on most web servers or hosted commercially through services such as Yahoo or GoDaddy. To help familiarize people with the technology WordPress also provides free accounts at WordPress.com, and web pages created with WordPress are all the web presence that many small businesesses need. WordPress is designed in a way that makes it very easy for web developers who understand CSS to change the “look and feel” of a WordPress site in a way that makes it difficult for non-technical people to even recognize where the pages come from.
Other Options such as TypePad and Movable Type Exist
TypePad is the commercially-hosted version of Movable Type, and a venerable choice for individuals such as authors or speakers. I am very fond of Movable Type as a back-end for business web pages and keep my own blog site with this technology, although WordPress is more popular.
Support Sites for Media Hosting
Most businesses won’t benefit from hosting large numbers of pictures or videos, but if your business might, sites such as Flickr and YouTube allow you to post and host these easily, whence they can be referenced or embedded in other web pages or blogs. Realtors, artists, instructors, hairdressers, landscapers and event planners are just a few of the professions that might.
In addition to posting albums that showcase your products or present terrific “before and after” examples, some professions (such as language, music or physical instruction) may benefit from an occasional video or audio podcast. If yours is one, GarageBand comes bundled with every new Mac and provides a simple way to create and share podcasts with the public. iMovie can also be used to create videos and presentations to share online, although other tools may be better for more static presentations.
Another simple way to use YouTube is simply as a pointer to content created by others. Even if your business only has a single, 45-second commercial to post to YouTube, you can still use other features such as YouTube “favorites” to provide links for your customers and clients to other, relevant and useful content.
Google Apps, Docs, Sites and Calendars
I have written of various “Google apps” before but it is worth mentioning both Google Docs and Google Calendars again. If your business or professional is such that a calendar of events or available times might be useful to embed on your web site, Google calendars provide an easy way to do so. If you find yourself creating presentations for clients or to showcase a particular project, process or property, “Google docs” and particularly the presentation module are a simple way to create an online presentation which can be embedded in a web page or used as a stand-alone. My own Linked In profile, for example, includes a basic Google presentation as well as links to my blog, which occasionally incorporates Google documents.
Use of gCals, gDocs and hosted media such as YouTube or Flickr is a simple and inexpensive way to leverage social media as multimedia, as are various aspects of Facebook for those with Facebook groups or pages.
Tying It All Together: Some Examples
However one chooses to deploy social media, it is important to have a schedule and a plan. I personally don’t recommend that any business owner spend more than thirty minutes per week on social media. Jobseekers and those who are actively recruiting for work may spend much more, but it is vital to not do things that may be seen as unprofessional or distract you from a clear business purpose. If you understand who you are and exactly why you are deploying social media, this discipline will be much simpler. Remember the two questions of (1) what business purpose does it serve and (2) what do you want people to do just after contact. Does what you are doing make you more visible and credible? If not, I would suggest you not do it as any part of your business’ social networking strategy.
What your social networking strategy looks like will vary dramatically depending on what sort of business you have, but generally I suggest physically diagramming whatever strategy you have and to understand (A) where you want to be, (B) where you want to send people, (C) why and (D) how. Toward this, I suggest that people identify one or two clear targets, deploying other sites as “feeders” for this site or as media support. Below are four examples of ways that I have advised clients to deploy social networking in support of their business.
Social Media for the Job Seeker
Someone who has recently been laid off or is otherwise looking for a job will use social media differently and I would usually suggest some combination of Linked In, Facebook and perhaps a blog. Facebook helps you connect with friends and schoolmates so that you can project a positive image and make people who care about you aware of your job search. That is all. Make sure that your Facebook profile is very positive, restricted or both, and if you are on Facebook at all, be certain that there are no pictures there you would not sitting out on your desk at work.
Linked In is a useful web site for job seekers because it was designed for professional networking. At its most basic level, a Linked In profile allows you to post a resume, but it can also be used to showcase other aspects of your professional life in a way that draws inquiries or interviews. Linked In encourages connections with past colleagues and makes it easy to give and receive recommendations. There are professional organizations where one can demonstrate one’s skill and knowledge, but don’t spend too much time there that could better be spent on work. Linked In also has the option to provide links to other web sites, blogs and even videos or Google doc presentations. How many of these are appropriate to you depends on many things, but a Linked In profile is a very simple way to brush up one’s resume and stay connected. Even if one is currently employed or not looking, a Linked In resume helps to begin accumulating connections and recommendations now, for established presence and more credibility later.
If one is a knowledge worker of some kind, a professional blog might also be worth establishing. A health worker, massage therapist or teacher may wish to post general wellness articles or book reviews, as a way to keep themselves in the public eye, providing extra value to established clients and giving them a simple way to refer others to them. Even if one only updates the blog a few times each year, it can become a helpful resource to others and something of an online portfolio.
Social Media for a Grocery Store or Cafe
A physical store without any substantive web presence should probably begin with a Facebook page or blog, depending on their clientele. If the clientele is already on Facebook, start there and begin to develop connections as your current customers become “fans.” Photos of sales and events can be shared, as well as store hours and events. A Twitter feed can be created to streamline “status updates” and the goal here is simply to become “top of mind” and part of folks’ cognitive landscape.
When someone searches for you or your business online, what do they find? Make sure that it includes your phone number, store address and hours. A basic blog may contain little more than directions and store hours and still be a valuable resource. Usually the sort of questions that people ask when they phone are good to answer online and taking the time to post those in one stable and good place is time well spent.
Social Media for Professional Trainers
For a company that does professional trainings to Fortune 500 corporations I recently suggested that they have staff remove most mentions of the company from Facebook pages and instead post substantive resumes and a company profile online, where it is easier to network professionally and they can begin to accumulate testimonials and recommendations. The reason for this was their audience. I also suggested a single company blog with multiple authors, which could be linked to various Linked In profiles. When the strength of your business case is the quality of your people and their resumes, put those all out there in a way that makes them easy to find and connect. Showcase them where clients are likely to look, and avoid primarily social sitses such as Facebook and deeply unprofessional sites such as MySpace.
Social Media for Mixed Martial Arts
In the case of a Mixed Martial Arts gym, my advice was exactly the opposite. After creating a basic web page I suggested that they put their class schedule onto a Google calendar where a link could be posted so that folks can always see what is going on. Since their demographic is largely young people, I suggested they configure a MySpace profile (a standard in their industry) and a FaceBook page where news of upcoming events (and photos of past ones) could easily be posted. Huge parts of the MMA experience are social, and young people tend to use their phones for all sorts of things. A Twitter feed can be used to announce changes in the schedule, which are automatically forwarded to the gym’s Facebook page, saving time all around.
Have A Plan
By considering the value and purpose of social networking tools, you can avoid wasting a huge amount of time, and deploy them in a way that helps your business. In summary I suggest that all business users consider a few basic questions.
- What business purpose does this technology serve?
- Who is our market or the audience for this content?
- What do we want them to do immediately upon receiving it?
- Is the content useful?
- Does the content make us easier to find?
- Does it make us more credible?
- Does the content remind them of us in a professional way?
If one doesn’t know or understand the answers to those questions, I would suggest a thoughtful pause.
A Super-Simplified Presentation to Share
Some Good Examples
- Ruhl Bee Supply uses Twitter masterfully
- Burgerville and Alberta Co-op’s Facebook page cover all the basics
- People’s chose a Facebook group instead.
- Vancouver Food Network’s YouTube favorites
- Urban Farm Store embeds a terrific Google calendar
- Glenn Grossman’s Blogspot helps transform Clark County agriculture
- Author Susie Bright promotes everything through TypePad
- Urban Farm School makes terrific use of WordPress
- I try to make my own Linked In profile a good example
What sort of ways can you use social networking and media to be more useful to current and future customers?
Social Networking Strategy and Deployment
If you would care to schedule an appointment to discuss the possibilities of social media and how it might be intelligently deployed in a logical way to help your business, please consider phoning MacRory for a consultation at (360) 666-7679.