In case you've been off-planet for the past several years, "social networking" has become the talk of the Internet. And more to the point, it's now an essential tool for business, having moved from experimental curiosity to business networking necessity.
But social networking involves an increasingly complex and ever-changing web of technologies, communities and strategies that even the smartest business minds have trouble mastering. Basically, social networking is the process of creating online relationships, conversations and connections through a wide range of social media such as blogs, networking sites (think LinkedIn), web communities (Facebook), photo and video sharing services (YouTube, Flickr) and the micro-blogging site Twitter, among many others.
"Social networking sites offer businesses networking and marketing opportunities at no cost," says social networking expert Steve Fretzin, president of Sales Results, Inc. "But if you don't know how to make social networking sites work for you, you might end up losing business instead of gaining it."
Keep in mind there's a reason that "networking" contains the word "work." It doesn't happen by itself. You must be smart and diligent about your efforts in order to show results. Here are six things you can do:
1. Sample the field, then focus on a few. There are far too many social networking tools and sites to use them all. In some cases, blogs, forums and sites that target a specific industry or profession might be your best choice. For many others, the majors such as Facebook, Twitter and perhaps you own bog will be the way to go. Test a few places to see what works, and what you feel comfortable with. Your time is valuable, so focus your efforts on three or four sites to keep the time commitment under control. Stay focused on your goals.
2. Get cozy with LinkedIn: This is the biggest site focused on business and professional networking, so it's certainly one to consider using. "Whether you are looking to create inside connections, find new marketing talent or build your brand, it's important to become familiar with the site and its full potential," says Fretzin. "If you are interested in branding yourself as an expert in your field, check out the various LinkedIn groups that surround your industry."
3. Keep it professional: Your goal is to provide useful, trustworthy and credible information that elevates you and your business. Posting details of a personal or in-house nature is a waste of time. Once a connection is made, consider taking the conversation "off line" to avoid cluttering your social networking space with one-to-one details of no relevance to others. If your focus is on a local market, keep it there. Quickly respond to and comments and queries you receive.
4. Build your brand and position your personal expertise: Social networking is an ideal way to position yourself, your business or your brand as a leader in your field. The more specific you can get in defining your special expertise or product/service niche, the better. Carving a highly specialized niche -- and always using the terms and keywords to fit -- makes it easier for people to find you online. Become active in industry forums and groups and (this is critical) post thoughtful, credible comments on blog posts and Q&A sites. You might be surprised how quickly this builds your online reputation.
5. Discover the power of using the search feature on Twitter. "If you are selling a product and want to know if other people are Tweeting about it or to find out what your competition is doing, this it the feature for you," says Fretzin, of Sales Results, Inc. "Simply type in the phrase or keywords that someone might use when searching for your business and expertise, and keep track of the search. Once you get a hit, you can begin a dialogue with the other party. This can be a powerful tool for creating new business."
6. Use apps, widgets and shortcuts. You can't truly leverage the power of social networking without using some of the new time-saving tools. Most major sites offer helpful applications and plug-ins themselves. At Facebook, for example, go to Facebook.com/apps and click on "business" for a list of business-specific applications.
Fretzin recommends social media shortcut sites such as Tweetdeck and Ping.fm. "These sites help you save time by allowing you to send messages simultaneously from one site. Ping.fm actually includes Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn all in one." Tweetdeck organizes your activity into columns so you can view and manipulate messages you've sent, mentions you've had and searches you are conducting.