By Allison Enright
Business used to be done with a handshake. Sometimes, it still is. But for a growing number of potential customers, the majority of research, referrals, and recommendations are being done by virtual rather than physical word, via social networks like LinkedIn, Facebook, and MySpace.
LinkedIn, a social network for business professionals, attracts nearly 69 million monthly unique visitors, according to Web analytics firm Compete Inc. Facebook, one of the largest general-interest social Web communities in the world, has more than 200 million active users (as of April 2009). More than half of that number log onto the network every day, sharing more than a billion pieces of content each week, according to Facebook research findings. Blogs, in which readers can respond to content posted by blog authors, numbered more than 112 million in 2008, states Web research firm Technorati. And 33 percent of U.S. Internet users say they read them.
The unbridled growth of these communication outlets has compelled a sea change in the way businesses communicate. From sole practitioners to large corporations, participating on the social web scene has become a near essential.
“People need to wake up to this whole thing,” said Nathan Egan, founder and managing director of social Web consultants, the Freesource Agency. “Get involved and take it seriously.”
For those who are tempted to shrug off the idea of social media as something just for teens and twenty-somethings, consider this: The fastest-growing user group on Facebook is women over 55, which grew nearly 550 percent in just six months. The 25-and-under crowd grew by less than 20 percent. LinkedIn users have an average of eight years’ work experience, and 23 percent of MySpace’s 65.1 million active members in the United States are aged 35 years and older.
Egan said the benefits of active participation in social media sites like LinkedIn can be huge. Imagine, for instance, that you’re a sole practitioner connected to your clients via a virtual network. If you were to ask a satisfied client to write a recommendation for you, that recommendation would be broadcast to not only your connections, but those of your client as well. That’s invaluable free marketing.
“If a CPA has 30 recommendations and they are all from clients, who is going to get the look or the nod? It’s going to be the person with the most recommendations,” Egan explained.
Business professionals also can participate in LinkedIn Q&A forums, where they answer questions posed by the LinkedIn community. Whenever you answer a question, that answer appears on your profile page. The more questions you answer, the greater your credibility, said Egan.
What’s more, members can join LinkedIn special interest groups, which help to further expand your network and build your reputation. Because LinkedIn is tied to the algorithms Google uses to return search results in general Web searches, boosting a profile on the network can increase a CPA’s visibility to non-LinkedIn participants, as well.
Individual self-promotion is one thing; however, putting yourself “out there” as an organization can be intimidating.
“It’s already tough for corporate executives to wrap their minds around social media,” said Valorie Luther, founder and CEO of Creative Concepts Consultants, a PR and social media consultancy. “They are very leery of complete transparency, and are afraid of losing control. What I say to every business afraid of this is, ‘You can only gain control once you lose control.’”
Also consider the fact that, in an ultra-competitive market for talent, having a presence on social networking sites that are favored by young professionals might give your organization the edge it needs in the fierce recruiting game. KPMG and Deloitte, for example, use Facebook and MySpace as recruiting tools for internships and entry-level positions, in addition to promoting their on-campus events.
Other companies have used social Web technologies to enhance their brand and business. Wells Fargo & Company, for instance, is considered a pioneer in bringing the social web to financial services, said Luther. The bank launched its first blog in 2006 and now supports five. It further developed an online virtual world game called Stagecoach Island
, which targets teens with a message about fiscal responsibility. It also communicates via MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter.
“In every channel you can find your next consumer, an individual who is interested in hearing your brand’s message,” said Luther.
As far as blogs go, though, Wells Fargo might be the exception rather than the rule. Less than 15 percent of Fortune 500 companies maintain a corporate blog, according to PR firm Burson-Marsteller’s blogging index survey.
Nevertheless, blogs represent an easy entrée into the world of social media, and are a great way to build your personal brand and raise your profile to potential employers.
“Recruiters are using blogs to help to understand their potential employees. If there is a blog out there written by a candidate, they read it,” Egan said. “It can really help to make a distinction between you and the guy next to you who doesn’t have a blog. That level of transparency makes it easier to make a judgment call if they are going to hire.”
Some companies are going so far as to establish unique Web spaces apart from their main portals to help to promote their brand. In February 2009, for example, Boston-based insurer Liberty Mutual launched the Responsibility Project
, which combines blogs, videos, and forums designed to stimulate conversations about personal financial responsibility. The site is a hybrid of consumer-generated content and content sourced by Liberty Mutual.
“Consumers today want to engage in conversation with companies and other consumers, not be spoken at through corporate press releases and glossy ads,” said Luther. “Social media works because it is all about relationships.”
Zecco, a low-cost stock brokerage, launched ZeccoShare, a social community for investors, late in 2007, making it a key part of their customer acquisition and marketing plan. It now boasts more than 230,000 members that use the community think-tank to develop and manage their portfolios. ZeccoShare allows investors to show off their profiles and trade wins. Members also can join specific groups to participate in discussions on topics like socially responsible investing or diversity in investing.
No matter how deeply you decide to wade into social networking waters, be aware that the systems only work if you are actively engaged in them.
“People say, ‘I joined LinkedIn but it didn’t do anything for me,’” said Egan. “Well, it’s not going to do anything for you unless you make it work for you.”