Social networking is clearly taking off. Indeed, Facebook is getting around 150,000 new members every day of the week. Add to that MySpace, YouTube, Bebo and specialist sites like Ecademy and you can see that before long the whole Internet world will be in some social network or another.
Why you should join social networks
Although many social networks appear to be frequented by music loving teenagers, in fact there are several places in these networks for business people, the older generation and anyone with a specialist interest. The average age for people on MySpace is reportedly 43. So, social networks are not just for teenagers – they are for all of us.
However, for those in business, social networks provide a rich source of market research and potential customers. Social networks also help businesses build reputation and brand awareness. Being outside a social network is rather like a business being separated from where the action is. If you have an online business and you are not participating in some way with social networking, there are potential dangers for your business.
What if you don’t take part in social networks?
If you don’t use social networks in one way or another you will be less likely to keep up to date with current views and trends. This could have damaging consequences as your business may quickly offer things which are considered “old fashioned” or out-of-date. Furthermore, the social nature of these networks mean they can increase popularity for particular products or brands. If you are outside social networks you lose the potential power of “viral recommendation”, making what you sell more popular. Therefore if you don’t take part in social networking sites, there is a potential downside.
Which social networks should you join?
If you are in business there are four essential social networks. These are LinkedIn, Fastpitch, Facebook and Ecademy. Each has different features and benefits. For instance, LinkedIn allows you to contact people who you have never met before, but effect an introduction through someone they know and who you also know. This means that the contacts are more trusted as they come from people who you know.
Fastpitch is another business-focused social network that helps find people who match you in several ways. This helps automate the process of bringing you into contact with other business owners who could help you, or even be a customer. Fastpitch also provides a way of publishing your press releases.
Facebook has the advantage that it is huge. People from all walks of life are on there, plus there are countless specialist groups on everything from abseiling to zoology. This means you can find people who are interested in what you are selling or who could provide you with advice, support and research in your niche area.
Ecademy is the smallest of the networking groups, but for anyone in business it is a good place to go because it is a network of business people who all support each other and provide ideas and leads for one another. There are also several specialist clubs within Ecademy to focus on specific areas of business.
Finding other social networks
Although the main social networks will help your business, there are plenty of others around that can also provide useful contacts. A good place to look is in the Yahoo Directory of Social Networks or in Online Community Management. Also, take a look at Ning. This has a whole range of specialist social networks; indeed if you can’t find a network to suit your needs, you can even start one up using the Ning system.
What to do on social networks
Once you have joined the social networks that are relevant to you, what should you do? Take part, get involved, be visible. An online social network is similar to a traditional meeting. Say you were invited to an evening meeting with drinks and sandwiches where a wide range of local business people were going to be there – hundreds of them. If all you did was cuddle your drink and not speak to anyone all evening it would be a complete waste of your time. You would obviously start chatting to people. Cautiously at first, probably, you would chit-chat before getting on to more serious stuff.
It’s the same with online social networks. Just start chatting to people. You can either do this randomly, as you might at that imaginary evening meeting. Or you can talk to people you already know. So, search for your existing contacts to see if they are in that social network. If not, all of the main social networking sites have tools that allow you to invite your existing friends and colleagues to join in. You can even import your contacts list in many instances. Facebook, for example, will trawl through an existing contacts list and see if any of your contacts are already members, if so, connecting you.
Set up a group or club
To get yourself noticed, set up a specialist group on Facebook or within Ecademy, for instance. This will associate your name with that particular interest, helping establish your reputation within the network. Invite people to join that group, advertise it using the tools within the social network and encourage discussion within the group itself.
If a group or club already exists, join it and become one of the regular contributors. You want people to associate your name or company with the topic. That way when other people discuss things in the network, they will probably refer to you.
Make social networking part of your routine
The best way to ensure you get the most out of social networking is to make it a daily activity. Whether you do this first thing in the morning, over lunch or just before bed does not matter. What matters, though, is making it a habit by doing it so regularly it becomes second nature.
Just log in, read any messages, check in to your groups, start a discussion and search for new contacts. That would be a good start to each session with your main social networking groups. Then, take a look round the other groups that are associated with your particular business area. These will be rich sources of market research, information and useful links and ideas to help your business.
Depending on which social network you are working in, you can also post adverts or marketing listings, special events and press releases. However, the key activity you should be doing within each social network is taking part – rather than just reading. Most social networking members are “lurkers” – they simply stand on the sidelines and read what is being written without actually contributing. This means the other people don’t know they are there. Being visible in a social networking site will dramatically increase your reputation and brand awareness. To do this you need to be an active member of each network you join.
Build your network
Part of your daily routine in your social network should be to build your network. Find people you can connect with, who share your interests and ask them to connect with you. The more people you connect with, the more influence you can have, plus the more viral your messaging can become. If you give some advice or an idea to one of your contacts they can often pass it on to their friends. But if you have few contacts in your network, you are limiting the impact of your information. The more contacts you have, the more widely your reputation can be disseminated.
So, social networking can be a real help to your business, either in finding new customers or conducting market research. But neither of those things will happen unless you make social networking a real business activity; you cannot “tinker” at it, you need to do it properly.
A useful blog post on social networking can be found at the Digital Biographer.