In just a few years, social networking sites have become an essential tool for communications and marketing. Here's how to use them to maximum effect
Social networking sites are the media explosion of the past five years. From being essentially chat rooms for students, they have become a mainstream communications device for the whole world. Users cover all social groups, all age ranges and income groups. The power of Facebook and Twitter were eloquently demonstrated in Tunisia and Egypt recently.
This is most definitely a business tool, both in terms of marketing and in order to exchange ideas and inspiration. Social media sites offer the potential to establish a relationship with customers and communicate with them regularly. Sites such as Twitter and Facebook enable businesses to communicate directly with both frequent and potential customers, providing a means to make offers and explain changes at no cost.
Moreover, individuals can also benefit from a presence on forums and networking sites. Chefs can share recipes and advice, including details of their latest dishes, with their peers and a wider audience of customers, while restaurant and hotel managers are able to exchange content, images and information on the latest legislation.
The great thing about social media is that no matter whether you are an individual, or acting as part of a large organisation, there are no barriers to entry. Everyone is on a level playing field, because social sites are free to use.
Indeed, the evidence of a survey by McCann Erickson, the global marketing group, demonstrated that marketing specialists at large companies were not up to speed with Facebook and Twitter and suggested that smaller businesses were doing a better job.
But there are some key rules of engagement that should be observed for a successful social media strategy. As we go through them, ask yourself if they apply to you.
Making the most of social media
Tweets by First you have to find people to follow (Twitter term for staying in touch with) who you hope will also follow you. The issue is who do you follow? Local businesses, sports and social clubs, large employers in your catchment area, local PR and other agencies and local journalists would be a good start. Your peers can also be a great source of inspiration.
Search for keywords such as the name of your town to give you a stack of contacts and, with intelligent use, opportunities. The immediacy of Twitter means that you are likelier to be in pole position on those opportunities. To keep the contacts active, Tweet regularly - once a day is good. Weekly is a waste of time.
Facebook Facebook is about social interaction. Above all it's conversation, shared experience.
Aim for quality, not quantity. Join groups related to your business and locality. Be highly selective because some of them are nonsense and others plain weird.
Follow your own enthusiasms. If you are a big rugby fan, say, you are sure to like a hotel or bar full of other fans. With events such as the Six Nations and the upcoming World Cup you've got an ideal basis for regular posts and opportunities to invite friends along to your premises. This works with all sports but equally with music, film, books, rambling, travel - you name it.
LinkedIn is an effective way to gain introductions to business people who could benefit you. For developing corporate business this is an excellent platform, but it takes time. The key benefit of LinkedIn is that it is firmly business orientated - a corporate hospitality manager reading a feed from LinkedIn is comfortable about being sold to.
LinkedIn has a reputation that it is about job-hunting and certainly if you're looking for managerial grade people it's a good free resource.
Forums provide a free platform for individuals or employees of an organisation to interact with each other. They are a great way to share knowledge, be it information on suppliers, sourcing or staffing.
In essence they enable you to network with people who have similar interests or who feel strongly about the issues that are close to your heart. You can canvas others' views, and share your own. They can even help you find mentors that can give you advice on various issues and help you in different situations.
Top Five social media tips
1 Don't ignore it. Allow employees the space to engage, but make sure there are boundaries.
2 Copy businesses or individuals that are already actively using social sites. Follow your peers to see what they are doing and how they're being successful. Participate. Start a blog about your business. It is important to get involved with other blogs and forums, too. Leave comments on relevant topics and monitor the social networks to find out who is talking about your interests and engage them in conversation.
3 Be engaging. Fresh, interesting messages are far more successful in engaging with potential customers than self-centred and stilted communication. It's not the end of the world if some mistakes creep in as long as the content is compelling and not an overt sales pitch.
4 Avoid constantly banging home your advertising message. This will rapidly make you enemies, not friends and will ruin your online reputation.
5 Treat it as a conversation. Aim to have lots of short "chats" with customers and prospective customers. Short and sweet is good, long-winded is bad. Be as light-hearted and relaxed as possible.
1. Which of the following is the best way to engage with the online community?
a Farm out your message to a third party who can consistently represent you online
b Have two personalities. One while you're at work and another, less formal, when online in your own time
c Post replies and messages but try to make sure they contain some form of promotion
d Be open honest and receptive all the time with a clear voice (your own)
2. What's the cost for businesses to use social networking sites?
a Just the price of an internet connection
b Staff time responding to posts
c Membership fees
d Specialist management charges and training costs
3. What's the worst thing you can do when communicating via social media?
a Be preachy and just repeat one message
b Talk down to users you don't agree with
c Bore people to death with your opinion without listening to theirs
d Talk up your advertising message whenever possible
4. What's the biggest business advantage of social media?
a Your contacts are your friends and will help reinforce your online message
b The cost is minimal
c It's a conversation, not a lecture, so you can add real value to a user's experience and relationship with your business
d There are millions of customers available
5. How often should you post Tweets or on forums?
a Set a reminder in your busy schedule to post once a week
b Monitor the sites you have identified and try to add to the conversation or share something every day
c Have a constant online presence and post hourly
d Only post when you've got breaking news
6. How do you deal with negative comments on forums or reviews on websites?
a Ignore them because dignifying them with a response legitimises the complaint
b Write back as forcefully as possible to discredit the author
c Reply courteously thanking the user for feedback, apologise and explain to clear up any misconceptions
d Take the high road and spell out to other readers why this person shouldn't be trusted
(Answers: 1d; 2b; 3d; 4c; 5b; 6c)
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