Social networking in business: When is the right time to get involved?

When is the right time to jump into social networking initiatives and why should you research many sites before settling into just one? First, it’s practically impossible to manage what you don’t understand. Second, determining the right time to jump in is not as important as investigating the sites to determine if your involvement would complement your firm’s existing marketing, sales, client communication, or any host of business initiatives. Finally, social networking sites vary in form and function, which is why your business should do research and perhaps consider launching through multiple outlets.

Many people and firms are holding back because they believe today’s sites are nothing more than a fad that will pass. The sites that are popular today will have to evolve or they may indeed fade and lose their luster. Barring evolution, new “must have” networking outlets will emerge to satisfy social networking needs in business. Think of today’s big buzz social networking Web sites like a wave that has water in it that you can choose to ride or let pass. If you miss this one, rest assured there will be another. Because no one knows how long this wave will be upon us, rather than simply waiting for this wave pass, there are plenty of good reasons to investigate and consider getting involved today, including:
 
· Social networking sites require zero “real cash” outlay, costing only the investment of time
 
· Social networking sites allow for the free-flow of information and people are increasingly becoming more excited about checking their “Facebook” page than checking e-mail
 
· My father, a seventy-five year old retired engineer recently asked me “What is Twitter and tweeting?” If a retiree who still walks around with his clipboard, pencil, and graph paper is asking about Twitter and tweeting, the time is ripe for everyone to - at the very least - investigate!
 
How extensively you get involved with social networking initiatives hinges on how these initiatives align with your firm’s goals. Your firm may want to leverage a site like Facebook to create a client group, post news, share client success stories, or post YouTube videos of client testimonials and demos. For any firm sending out e-newsletters, or client communications, creating a chat group or client networking group on these sites provides another outlet for sharing important content that may otherwise get buried if it were delivered as an e-mail message.
 
The goals for involvement in social networking initiatives can vary from support for public relations and marketing initiatives to a sales communication tool for prospects, or a networking tool for clients, and more. Follow these helpful tips to better understand and manage social networking initiatives:
 
Conduct your own investigation
Before you determine whether or not to invest resources or any energy into creating a business profile and joining a site, investigate the leading sites and kick the tires! Consider Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and Plaxo as four of the top networking sites to investigate.
 
Select social networking opportunities that support business goals
Not every site is going to be a fit and align with your firm goals. After your investigation, consider starting with one site, and limiting the time and resources to manage the site. Assign one person the task of building and managing your firm profile.
 
Aligning your business goals with social networking initiatives should also include defining whom you “friend” or connect with in a network. If the purpose were to share e-newsletters and client-centric content, it may not make sense to connect a non-client outsider. Likewise, if goals included building a network for clients to encourage sharing of best practices or peer-to-peer problem solving, leveraging a resource like Twitter makes little sense because Twitter limits posts to140 characters.
 
Get the word out – and if needed – educate your clients!
Introducing a “chat” group on Facebook for clients makes little sense if your clients have no understanding of how to create a profile or get connected. Additionally, many may not want to get connected if they do not recognize a direct benefit for investing their time in a network forum on a site such as Facebook. If you decide to start a client group on Facebook or another outlet, educate clients with a “How to join our Facebook Forum” handout, provide click-by-click instructions, and highlight a list of benefits of being involved with your network forum.
 
Structure or limit the time invested in managing a social networking site
Whether responding to posts, making connections with people, or adding content to your profile, stay consistent by making regular updates once or twice weekly. I strongly recommend scheduling 15-minutes on your calendar one time per week to maintain each site. If not calendared and time-bound, posts can become random or the amount of time spent on a social networking site can easily spiral out of control. 
 
Avoid getting personal, overloading content and resist begging
No one really wants to know if you are sitting in an airport or if your garden has weeds. When posting as a business, be informative, educational, and get to the point. With sites like Twitter, users are limited to 140 characters, which force the user into a sound bite format for delivering content. When connecting through a site like Facebook, visitors can be over-stimulated or lose interest if postings become loaded with excessive clutter.
 
Resist the urge to beg for followers. If you regularly post quality content and make weekly connections with your targeted group, eventually the word will spread and new followers will stream in. You can add to your signature line a Facebook, Linked In, or Twitter address – however, including a signature line that states “Follow me on Twitter” this can come across as sounding desperate.
 
Avoid posting on what may be sensitive topics
Events will unfold in the industry or within a competitor's business that may be highly tempting to post about. Resist the urge to make statements on these topics. You risk turning off prospects and clients in the event the topic is being monitored or highly sensitive to them. The safest approach is to stay neutral, be informative and remain professional.
 
Google, Search Engine Optimization and measuring the impact of social networking
To improve rankings in Google and other search engines, some firms are tapping into search engine optimization gurus for advice, while others are simply asking their employees and clients to set the company Web site as their homepage, thus, opening the company site every time the Internet is accessed. There are many ways to improve your company’s rankings, and there are distinct benefits to building RSS feeds from social networking sites into your homepage. While improving your rankings in Google can seem much like the quest for the Holy Grail in business, building an RSS feed directly from social networking sites like Twitter to feed directly into a home page on a firm’s Web site helps. Tweets can be piped directly from Twitter to your home page, which Google recognizes as an update, thus enhancing a firm’s rankings in search engines like Google. 
 
There are ways to measure how social networking initiatives impact a business. Perhaps the easiest being monitoring Web site traffic pre- and post-social networking initiative(s). Before investing significant amounts of time in social networking initiatives, do research. Find the best-fit site and determine how to analyze and measure the return on investment of time and resources.
 
About the author:
Leslie Garrett, MMS serves as a Senior Account Manager for Accounting Edge Marketing providing strategic marketing and PR consultation and service in the accounting industry. For more information about Accounting Edge Marketing, visit www.AccoutingEdgeMarketing.com, or contact Leslie at lgarrett@AccountingEdgeMarketing.com.

 

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