Social net strategies for SMBs

More than 20 million Canadians are on online social networks – a sea of marketing possibilities for small business that would dare to dip their feet into the Web 2.0 pool.

Valuable business intelligence can be gleaned from the consumer chatter taking place in social nets and companies that manage to get a word in edgewise on the conversation might even bring some traffic to their front door, according to Internet marketing experts.

“Social networks are genuinely useful for businesses that can understand and learn to use this tool,” says Michael O’ Connor Clarke, vice-president of Thornley Fallis Communication, a Toronto-based communications and public relations agency.

Essentially, online social networks are pockets of communities formed by people who discuss common interests using various tools such as: blogs, short message services, social sites, videos or digital photos. In a span of a few years, the trend has evolved from a lifestyle-based activity to corporate and business applications.

Yet, even with social networking rapidly gaining pervasiveness, the practice is not for everyone and might not suit but instead harm the operations of some businesses, warns Clarke.

Another Web marketing expert agrees.

“Social networking is a double edge sword,” says Dominira Saul, usability specialist for the Ottawa branch of Macadamian Technologies Inc., a software development and technology usability research firm.

Online communities where people freely exchange views and espouse ideas have turned traditional marketing and media concepts, he explained.

“Today, media consumers create their new content rather wait for the 6 o’clock news. Advertisements take a backseat to grassroots online word-of-mouth recommendation.”

This new awareness and developments in Internet-based tools, Saul said, has given consumers the power to influence the presentation information and the development of public opinion.

The bottom line is, Clarke cautions, when a company puts itself out on the social networking arena it gains access to vast market “but also opens itself up to scrutiny and possible negative review which can spread like wildfire to millions of audiences.”

Here are some helpful tips for SMBs contemplating to be social in the Net:

Know your audience – Just like any marketing campaign, businesses must be aware of their target audience. Determine who you need to speak or listen to.

What demographic set or sets will your campaign be appealing to? Your answer will have you determine what type of social networking venue you should enter and the accompanying strategies to develop.

Determine if social networking is for you – Is social networking really ideal for your company, its products or services and operation. Take a good, hard and honest look and determine if social networking is for you, advices Clarke.

“Your product or reputation might not be able to stand the scrutiny and criticism on the Web. Maybe the temperament of the leadership does not lend itself to the practice. Or maybe your business just doesn’t need social networking.”

Don’t get into social networking just because it’s hot, says Saul of Macadamian Technologies. “There has to be fit with your business.”

Businesses have a choice of altering their views and practices or seeking out the appropriate social networking channels to suit their needs.

Pick the right tool for the job – When you have identified your audience and decided that social networking is appropriate, the next step is to identify what social networking tool you should use.

Take into account which social networking sites your targeted market is tuned to; what sort of media do they consume (blogs, video, online tunes); and which devices to they use.

Although, networking is primarily done using the computer, a new generation of Web-enabled cell phones such as Apple’s iPhone, the RIM’s BlackBerry Bold and Samsung’s Instinct have made mobile social networking more accessible.

Treat potential customers with respect – Consumers are very smart and tech savvy. New tools, instant access to information and collaboration with other consumers, Clarke points out, makes it easier for people to determine if their being fooled by businesses.

Make sure your product or service actually feeds a need.

Among the issues that businesses should be careful about are: security of consumer personal data, fare business practices, providing relevant and truthful information is ways that can be easily accessed and understood; and providing a feedback and recourse mechanism for customers.

Engage the customer – Competition for customer eyeballs is extremely stiff on the Web. Typically, merchants only six to eight seconds to catch the attention of a customer on the Web, says Clarke.

If that customer decides to read what you have to say, Clarke said, that individual will usually a lot a little more than 60 seconds to decide whether to read through or move on. “Attention span is very short on the Web and users are very quick to vote with their feet.”

Some ways to keep audiences interested include: providing them with relevant and useful content, fun and interesting games and online challenges or the option to rate content or vote on an issue.

If you get things right, your campaign will become viral, this means satisfied or impressed customers will be informing their friends about your product or service. And those friends will be inviting their own friends to your site as well.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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