The next 50 years of the Internet will be dominated by the phenomenon known as social networking. It's clear that social networking and all its applications will only continue to expand and evolve, changing the way we do business across all lines. If you join the party now, you can boost your sales and growth and survive in the new era of business technology - if you do not, the candles may just blow out.
Which would you rather do: drive and/or fly thousands of miles to meet and greet existing and potential clients; rack up long distance bills by phoning and faxing those same people; send out emails to your client base at no real physical cost to you (but possibly annoying your customers); or engage customers via a social networking site like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube?
The overwhelming choice, not surprisingly, is social networking. What is surprising, however, is just how many people and businesses are turning to those sites. No longer just for college kids, today, two thirds of all global Internet users visit social network sites more than they use email, according to a March 2009 report by Nielsen. Over one third (35 percent) of all U.S. web users over the age of 18 have a social networking profile, compared to eight percent just four years ago. Memberships on such services are exploding, with Facebook, whose press department claims over 300 million active users worldwide, the clear frontrunner.
And according to a recent study conducted by the Advertising Specialty Institute (whose member companies specialize in merchandise branded with company names or logos via t-shirts, keychains, pens and the like), nearly 90 percent of respondents feel that social networking already is, or will be, a good way to promote their business. More than half of the distributors polled have a profile on either Facebook or LinkedIn. However, only roughly 53 percent of distributors claim to know how to best use social media for their business.
Although social networks have existed for about four years, they are still very much in a state of flux. Despite Facebook's commanding lead, it's not even the most talked about social networking site out there - Twitter is, having grown from 500,000 users at the beginning of 2008 to a reported 70 million currently. Twitter does not provide membership figures. One should also bear in mind that another social networking site, MySpace, was all the rage before Facebook overtook it way back in late 2008. Yes, things change quickly on the Internet.
None of this means that a savvy businessperson should continue to sit on the sidelines and bide his time, waiting for something to emerge as a generally agreed upon, permanent leader. Indeed, most observers say that businesses today are expected to have a presence on at least one of the major sites, much as websites themselves became de rigueur in the 1990s.
Expecting immediate, or even not so immediate, sales returns from having a Facebook page is the wrong approach. Instead, social networking sites should be viewed as another branding opportunity, similar to those specialty advertising pens featuring a company's name and contact information. Having a presence on Twitter or Facebook is another form of branding, not just for the company name, but also for the company image. Appearing to be on the cutting edge of any technology that's being widely talked about is never a losing proposition. But, as the name implies "social networking" goes beyond simply throwing a company's name up on a site and seeing what happens. The best business use of such a service is to engage with consumers, show off your wares, perhaps even brag a little. If done properly, the sales will come, just as they did by handing out company-branded pens in the past.
As a social networking site, the Cambridge, MA based Facebook earned its popularity by helping people keep in touch with their friends, or hook up with old college roommates and the like. Information about upcoming social events like weddings, reunions and even concerts can be easily disseminated, and easy-to-use search functions can help people locate others whom they've never met but who share similar interests or hobbies. Creating a Facebook profile includes an update section, where people can discuss practically anything (basic rules of language and etiquette apply). These strengths can also be applied to business. Facebook is all about "friending" people, which in this case means sending an invitation to become one's friend to ... well, one's friends and associates. Once those people have accepted your invitation, not only will you both be listed as the other's friend, but you will also be able to access the other person's friends.
And a database is born! Well, not necessarily. Flooding a friend's friends with promotional messages and invitations can be just as annoying as sending out blind ads via email and circulars. And as Facebook can giveth, so can it taketh away: irritate someone enough, and they can un-friend you, thus cutting you off from that particular group (and probably your original friend as well). Another attractive component of Facebook are its groups, which range far and wide in interests and goals. Joining such a group is a great way of getting a list of contacts quickly, since all group members can see your updates on your Facebook profile. You can also start your own group and send out invites.
Not everything has worked out for the best with Facebook, however. On September 23, the service officially shut down its "Facebook Beacon," the user data-sharing ad system that launched in the fall of 2007. Beacon ran into serious public relations troubles by tracking users' activity on third party retail sites like Overstock.com (which opted in to the service,) and sharing it with those users' friends as a "trusted recommendation." Privacy advocates were outraged, going so far as to file a class action lawsuit against the service and its retailing partners. Perhaps a well-intentioned error, if poorly executed, Facebook continues to experiment with data gathering systems, including Facebook Connect. Launched in December 2008, Connect allows Facebook users who choose to participate to log in to affiliated sites using their Facebook account, and share information from such sites with their Facebook friends. And in late September, it announced a deal with Nielsen to provide opt-in polls on the site's home page to gauge the effectiveness of ad campaigns and tweak them, that will see the research outfit conduct (opt-in) polls on the site's home page, in an effort to gauge the effectiveness of ad campaigns and consequently adjust them.
As with Facebook, users of San Francisco based Twitter have a personal site where they can receive and send information. On Twitter, information is sent in short 140-character blog posts called "tweets" to the author's subscribers who are known as "followers." Such information can be sent in a number of ways, including email, text messages and instant messages. Business applications are readily apparent. Quick, short tweets to business associates about improvements on products, or to customers on specials and sales, have proven effective, as have customer service initiatives that can include customer feedback. Again, the 140 character limit gets the message across quickly and (one hopes) clearly.
Twitter can be an effective tool in creating brand awareness and building customer trust, allowing companies to build its own set of followers. Computer maker Dell has generated more than $2 million in sales through alerts posted to Twitter, while a September 28 report in the Los Angeles Times said that local food carts have been attracting business by tweeting their locations. In addition, the site's Twitter Search application has become a much talked about feature, allowing users to discover which keywords are being used, in the site's words, "right now," ranking results in real time, rather than reporting what was popular a few hours or days ago. Customer service is, again, a potentially major component of a company's Twitter presence, as surveys of existing customers are relatively easy to conduct, and responding to customers' inquiries (quickly) can impress. Several airlines regularly tweet flight information and updates.
While primarily a video viewing site, famous for oddball clips posted by users and possibly copyright infringing scenes from TV shows and movies, San Bruno, CA based YouTube can also be an important business tool. Again, the bottom line is getting the message out about your company. Local online search services, Yelp.com and CitySearch.com, both maintain that having a YouTube video on their listing for a company doubles the likelihood that a visitor to that listing will take some kind of action. Professionally shot and produced videos are best unless you're going for a humorous amateur look, which can easily backfire. In much the same way that TV ads are generally considered to be more effective than newspaper ads in today's climate, online videos are thought by many to be more effective than simply relying on the verbiage on your homepage.
YouTube videos show up on Google and other search engines, including YouTube's own search function. A good title, including an evocative description, can actually boost a YouTube clip's rankings higher than the website itself. In addition, you can include a link to your YouTube video on your homepage and your Facebook page to increase the likelihood of customers seeing it, as well as tweet about it. As thousands of aging fans of "Where's the beef?" can attest, a pithy or clever image or saying can last in customers' consciousness for a very long time.
As of July, this business-oriented, Mountain View, CA based site had more than 43 million registered users, spanning 170 industries. Unlike the others listed above, LinkedIn is driven primarily by sharing one's business, rather than personal, activities. As such, it's a much more focused way of connecting with colleagues and other professionals in your line. Members can poll other members, either in a selective or LinkedIn-wide fashion about business matters large and small, and its member database is easily searchable by person's name, company name or industry. In addition, users can start their own groups or join existing groups to discuss business related topics, and can interlink their LinkedIn profiles with their Twitter, Facebook and other social media profiles.
With all of these facets, it's important to remember that the purpose of social networking sites is at the very least a two-way street. Straight advertising should be conducted through other avenues. Instead, Facebook, Twitter and the like can be used as a way of engaging with existing and potential customers in a number of ways. Of course, racking up those frequent flier miles can have its pluses too.
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