Office Hours: Tips for promoting your business through social networks

Monte Enbysk February 11, 2008

Monte Enbysk

Getting your business known through networking has always been a good idea. With social networking sites, you have an opportunity to network online, to find key contacts and potential customers you might never have met in person. See these tips from experts in Web marketing.

Applies to
Office Live Small Business

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Are social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn the business tools of the future? Or are they a passing fad that will meet the same fate as disco music?

Time will tell. But if you run a small business circa 2008, ignore them at your own peril. Many of your competitors have already jumped on the bandwagon, and are successfully networking their way to a stronger Web presence, enhanced credibility, and more customers.

Yes, many of these sites are used for socializing by your teenaged sons and daughters. But businesses can benefit too, says Lee Aase, a veteran media relations manager. His employer, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, has put him in charge of articulating the clinic’s message through social networking sites such as Facebook.

"The way that most businesses grow is by word of mouth, by recommendations, and by peers and communities," says Aase, who writes articles and blog posts about marketing through Facebook. "The whole concept of social media is a lot like birds of a feather flocking together" — in other words, people with a common interest or objective interacting online, he says.

Social networking sites (also known as social media sites) enable that interaction, in professional but also fun and interesting ways, Aase says.

While there aren't many strict rules about using social networks, there are dos and don’ts, as well as strategies you can employ to get ahead. Here are tips I’ve compiled from interviews with Aase and other experts in Web marketing.

  1. Experiment with multiple social networking sites, but focus your time on one or two.    You could easily invest countless hours posting pictures, taking movie quizzes, and engaging in other fun but trivial pursuits on these sites. But where does that leave your business?

Invest your time wisely on the right sites for your business. MySpace is the largest social networking site, but don’t count on it for great results in trying to reach an over-30 audience. Other sites likewise may not be the right fit for your target customer. Jinger Jarrett, a blogger and Internet marketing consultant based near Atlanta, says she has a presence on eight or more social networking sites for testing purposes. "I recommend being on a number of sites," she says, "but really focusing on one or two" where you receive the most frequent business contacts.

For Aase, the most promising are Facebook and LinkedIn. "LinkedIn is clearly for professional networking; it has positioned itself well for that," he says. "Facebook is much broader than that. I see it as having more utility."

  1. Write profiles that establish your credentials and expertise.    Most social networking sites start you with a profile page. Seize this opportunity to position your business and market your skills, as well as providing necessary contact information and a Web site address. If you are an expert on a given topic, brand yourself as such. Make sure your profiles are keyword-rich, Jarrett adds, noting that profiles on many sites are captured by search engines. Also, use pictures that you would want potential customers to see (not you barely standing at a party), and try injecting some flair and personality (for a business audience, of course).
  2. Take advantage of the applications and widgets these sites offer.    Facebook, among other things, allows you to build a business page for news about your company, an Events page for business activities, even a "Fan" page. You can also post videos on your pages; create special-interest forums, groups, and private sites for crisis management; and surface your blog posts on your profile page using RSS feeds. Courtesy of Aase, the Mayo Clinic itself has a presence in Facebook, including a Fan page replete with medical news, historical photos, videos, podcasts, and information about tours and events. Research what your chosen site offers.
  3. Join groups and forums and share your expertise.    "Get in there and start talking," Jarrett says, but make sure you have something valuable to say. Establishing credibility and trust is as important as making yourself known.

"Commenting on blog posts is one of the best things you can do online," adds Leslie O’Flahavan, a partner in E-WRITE, a Web content training and consulting firm in Silver Spring, MD. Credible comments add to any discussion and can help position you as someone with expertise in a given niche. O’Flahavan suggests these tips for commenting: Keep emotion to a minimum; proof-read your comments; be fresh and interesting; add links to Web pages for details or background, and avoid repeating what’s already been said.

  1. Seek out recognized authorities in your field.    Social networking is the online version of good old fashioned person-to-person networking — but in many ways is easier. Seek out experts and people you’d like to meet in your field. Send a Facebook friend request or a LinkedIn networking invitation, accompanied by a message introducing yourself and politely explaining why you’d like to meet this person online. Be confident, but make sure your motives are business-related.
  2. Be selective about your "friends."    You want to make friends on Facebook and other social networking sites — but it’s not about how many names you can "collect." Having a small number of friends (or connections) who value your passions and expertise, and who care to network regularly, may be best for your business.

Also, apply some smarts in initiating friend requests or networking invitations. Aase, a married man in his 40s, gets numerous friend requests from his blog posts and approves most. But he says he makes it a personal rule not to initiate requests to anyone under 30, to avoid what some younger users have called "the creepiness factor."

  1. Proactively write recommendations for valued clients.    Writing recommendations for past colleagues or people you enjoy doing business with is a smart way to do business online. Don’t wait to be asked to write them, O’Flahavan says. Those written without a request are even more endearing. "For the clients who have written me recommendations that I did not ask for, I feel very motivated to do business with them," she says.
  2. Promote your blog on social networking sites.    Blogging is not for everyone, and this is not a pitch to get you started against your will. But if you do blog or are considering blogging, many social networking sites enable you to surface your blog posts through RSS feeds. On Facebook, for example, by setting up a blog on Wordpress.com, your posts can automatically be pushed to your profile page, along with recent comments. In fact, you can syndicate posts from multiple blogs on your Facebook profile page.
  3. Use privacy settings and street smarts to limit identity theft.    Unfortunately, social networking sites, like the rest of the Internet, attract scam artists and thugs. Most sites have privacy settings allowing you to dictate how much of your profile is revealed to people inside and outside your network. Adjust these settings to your own comfort level, but in general, be cautious about the personal information you post. For example, never publish your social security number, and list your day of birth, but not the year you were born in, to guard against ID theft, Aase advises.
  4. Avoid aggressive marketing and constant promotion.    If you do nothing but promote your new book or new business or product, people in your network will lose interest and likely "un-friend" you. "Doing an announcement can generate excitement," Aase says, "but repeating your news again and again is frowned upon." A better strategy, he says, is to create interesting content that relates to the new book or business, and "earns" the reader’s attention. "It's all about conversation — not about push."

About the author

Monte Enbysk is a senior editor at Microsoft Office Live, and writes about Web-related issues for small businesses. He previously was a columnist and managing editor of the Microsoft.com Small Business Center, and before that a writer and editor at MSN Money, Washington CEO magazine, and daily newspapers in Washington and Oregon. When he's not writing and editing, he's often running. Monte has completed 13 marathons and more than 80 road races since 2001.

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