For decades, networking has been one of the primary means of meeting new contacts, potential customers, as well as nurturing relationships with existing accounts. Now, with professional social networking quickly gaining popularity, more and more business executives find themselves joining online social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn.
Will these sites such replace traditional business associations? Or are they current fads that will fade as time passes. No one knows. However, as we roll into 2011, ignoring these sites may cost you business. It is very likely that your competitors are already attracting new customers by establishing themselves as industry experts by using marketing tools available with online social networking sites.
“It is well known that teenagers and college students across the country are socializing on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter; but what many overlook is that business’ can benefit from these sites as well”, says Steve Staub, President of Staub Manufacturing. Staub Manufacturing is a metal fabrication company that has entered the age of social networking by establishing a group on LinkedIn called ‘Metal Fabrication’.
"Since we started the business in 1997 our highest quality leads have been generated through word-of-mouth, and by recommendation,” says Staub. . "The concept behind social networking for us is that you are connecting with other people that have similar common interests— sharing knowledge and experience. This not only helps everyone learn and share ideas…it is also a great networking tool”.
“Our LinkedIn group allows us to accomplish this level of interaction we enjoy with traditional networking groups with thousands of new prospects in a very efficient way”, Staub says.
There are many grey areas when it comes to rules on professional networking sites, as well as some general marketing strategies that work better than others do. Below you will find some general dos and don’ts to help get you started.
- Spend the time to identify which social networking site is best for you, and then focus your time on one or two. You can spend many hours reading articles, answering questions, posting pictures, and participating in discussions. However, unless you are interacting with the right audience, your business will have little to show for your effort.
The right networking site for your business will greatly depend upon your targeted customer base. MySpace and Facebook are the two largest social networking sites, however most of their users are under the age of 30. On the other hand, LinkedIn caters to a middle aged business-to-business audience.
For Staub Manufacturing, between all online networking options available, LinkedIn has proven the best investment of time. "Although the quantity of users is far higher on Facebook, we like LinkedIn because it has more of a business focus”, stated Steve Staub.
- Find the experts in your industry. You should use the same techniques in online networking as you would traditional person-to-person networking — be aggressive, and make new contacts. Try to identify the experts in your field. This can be as simple as sending a LinkedIn invitation, along with a message introducing yourself and explaining why you would like to connect with this person. Remember, the whole idea is to get your business’ name in front of a new audience.
- When developing your online profile, make sure it expresses your experience and expertise. Almost all social networking sites provide you with the opportunity to create an online profile page. Online profiles are an online resume of sorts for all of your prospects and customers to view. This is where you will talk about your work experience as well as your company’s capabilities. Be sure you include all necessary contact information so that an interested party can reach you. If you have an expertise in a field, be sure to use this in your profile. Make sure to include in your profile not only your company name, but also any products and services you offer. Often times, search engines such as Google and Yahoo will index keywords found in your profile making them searchable within their own systems, which can significantly increase visibility. Do keep in mind that anything you post, whether content or pictures is often times visible to everyone on the site, so make sure to keep your profile professional. Remember image is everything; you are what you portray.
- Writing recommendations will pay off. Frequently write recommendations for business colleagues and customers. Be proactive; do not wait for them to solicit a ‘recommendation request’ from you. Your clients and colleagues will be far more motivated to do business with you if you take the initiative to write an unsolicited recommendation for them. When writing these recommendations, do not write a ‘one-liner’, put some thought into why you do business with this individual. What makes them unique from everyone else?
- Explore the ‘widgets’ and applications social networking sites have to offer. LinkedIn allows users to develop a business page containing news/facts about your company, add an ‘Events’ application to find as well as promote business activities, use ‘SlideShare’ to upload and share your companies slideshow with fellow online contacts, and ‘Polls’ which are great market research tools used to collect data and feedback from your customers and/or prospects. Additional capabilities that are often available include posting your company videos, creating special interest groups/forums (for an example see the mfrtech.com LinkedIn group), as well as providing your contacts with access to your companies latest blog postings using RSS feeds.
- Professional networking sites are an excellent way to promote your blog. Not all of us feel comfortable, nor are willing to dedicate the time necessary to develop a blog. On the other hand, if you have a blog, or are considering creating one, most social networking sites provide the capability for you to directly import your blog postings via RSS feeds directly into your social networking profile. Again, it is all about content. The more informative and targeted content you can get in front of your customers, the more they will view you as an expert in your industry.
- BE THE EXPERT! Participate in groups and forums that are relevant to your industry. This is perhaps the most valuable tool available to you through social networking. Find groups that pertain to your area of expertise, then follow and participate in discussion boards.
"Commenting on blog posts is one of the best things you can do online," adds Tristan Smith, President at TCS Solutions, a website development, and search engine optimization firm headquartered in Cincinnati, OH. “Responding with targeted, on-topic comments helps position you as someone with expertise in a certain field”, says Smith.
Here are some basic guidelines for discussion boards:
- have educated, not emotional responses
- be sure to use proper grammar – AND USE SPELL CHECK
- stand out from the crowd, offer insight that makes your response unique from the others, and do not repeat what has already been stated – instead try to add to what has been said by providing links to outside sources (web pages) that support your comment/advice.
- Social networking is not a popularity contest. Befriend as many individuals in your line of business as possible— but do not just ‘add’ people to increase your friend count. Smith states, "having a smaller, targeted ‘friends list’, who value your experience and expertise, as well as those who participate in online networking regularly, will be far more productive for your business; likewise it will prevent you from waiting your time networking with those who will in no way benefit your business. “ Remember it is all about networking with people in your field.
Also, invite ‘friends’ with discretion. Tristan states, “it’s important to encourage your business acquaintances to participate in online professional networking, however you do not want to come across as an individual who is sending out invitations to every email address you can get your hands on. Make sure if you’re inviting someone to connect with you online, that it is actually a good fit for them.”
FYI: Most social networking sites do monitor the ratio of how many ‘friend’ invites you send out vs. how many are accepted. If it becomes clear that most of the people you invite are ignoring/declining your invites, you could be considered a spammer, and consequently banned from participating on these sites in the future. Do not send friend invites to email address lists you have purchased, as this will surely cause you to be banned.
- Take advantage of the privacy settings available. We all know there are many scam artists online, so be sure to keep your personal information to a minimum. For example, most sites provide you with the ability to control both your public profile that is viewable by everyone, as well as a private profile, which is only accessible by your friends. Each user can customize what information is viewable on each profile according to his/hers own comfort levels. Do not publish your home address or home phone number; also never publish the day and year of your birthday, as it is possible for someone to gather personal information from such a little amount of information.
- Social networking sites are not the place for blatant advertising and constant promotions. If you were to do nothing but promote your business in the same ‘gimmicky’ fashion you would other traditional forms of media, you will fail. Your expertise is the most valuable marketing tool you have online. Your customers are not buying your product; they are buying you. Constantly pushing your company products and services on your friends is highly frowned upon. Doing so will cause you to lose ‘friends’ along with credibility. You will have far better success by contributing interesting content to discussion boards, industry specific groups, and company blogs that relates to your customers interest. Discussion boards are no place for blatant advertisements from your company; oftentimes group moderators will not only delete them, but also ban the offender from future participation in the group.
For example, this publication (mfrtech.com) generates its revenue through advertising sales. In our LinkedIn group (click here to view) rather than consistently push marketing messages about the importance of advertising, we publish editorial content that we know is of interest to our readers. Naturally, if people enjoy reading articles such as this in the publication, they will be more eager to advertise in it. The goal is to sell your product by educating readers about products and services you offer, rather than making a blatant sales pitch. Allow the product to sell itself.
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