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Social Media For SMBs

Using social networking to promote your product or service can bring new opportunities, but understanding key concepts and guidelines can boost your ROI.

Next to mobility and cloud computing, social networking was the talk of Interop this year--especially at a conference session devoted to social software tools and a portion of the Unconference, where real SMB users talked about how to make the most of it.

But perhaps the best thing I learned about social media came in a meeting with security vendor ESET. Just as at a recent Intuit town hall where I discovered Social NOT-working, at Interop, ESET director of marketing Liz Fraumann shared the abbreviation for Social Media as "So Me." Perfect, isn't it?

Anyway, Social Software Tools: A Critical Evaluation, offered useful insight into the choices SMBs need to make when moving into social networking. Tony Byrne, founder of CMS Watch, started with a useful breakdown of the complex world of social networking, beginning with separating external and internal applications, depending on whether the connections occur inside or outside your company:

External

  • Branded community
  • Tech support
  • Reader interaction
  • Partner collaboration
  • Professional networking
  • Hosted user blogs and blog comments (you host, but don't control, user postings)

Internal

  • Project collaboration
  • Enterprise collaboration
  • Enterprise discussion (especially useful after a merger or acquisition)
  • Information organization/filtering
  • Knowledgebase management (collaboration)
  • Communities of practice
  • Enterprise networking (intranets and/or Facebook groups for employees); vendors include Ning and Lithium

Of course, where social networking takes place is only the first part of the puzzle. The networking itself can take many forms:

Social Networking Functions

  • Blogs; vendors include Six Apart, Google's Blogger, and Automattic's WordPress
  • Microblogs (Twitter)
  • Wikis; vendors include MediaWiki (the foundation of Wikipedia), Atlassian, MindTouch, and Socialtext)
  • Project tracking/participation software
  • Multimedia (video/audio, internal or external, including YouTube)
  • Information ranking/filtering--voting
  • Discussion forums
  • Presence/instant messaging (IM)
  • Public social networks, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Xing, and MySpace

Each of these functional applications has its own uses, strengths, and weaknesses.

Blogs, for example, are fast and simple to create, easily findable via RSS, and can promote ongoing conversations with readers. On the other hand, they're unorganized, hard to keep up over time, and easily spammed.

Microblogs like Twitter (or business versions like Yammer) are useful for quick customer support, a bit of marketing, listening to customers, and link sharing, Byrne says. But Byrne challenged the conventional wisdom, saying Twitter is not good for having a discussion. He likened Twitter discussions to trying to have a long-distance conversation at a crowded football game from one section to another while shouting over everyone else's conversations.

Wikis, meanwhile, offer extraordinary power; make it possible for everyone to read, edit, and review postings; and facilitate bottom-up communications. But wikis also are hard to organize, offer limited display/navigation options, and may require some training to maximize their value. In addition, wikis lack a controlling voice, making them dependent on the wisdom of crowds. That's why Byrne suggests designating a wiki gardener or steward to help keep things clear and on track.

And don't forget the old-school choice: discussion forums. Often disparaged in comparison to fancy new alternatives, forums remain popular and powerful. They're perfect for "many-to-many communications," Byrne says, and can be structured hierarchically. But while forums are a great solution for Q&A sessions, they're not well suited for multiple people trying to edit the same text.

Public networks like Facebook and LinkedIn can be used for marketing, recruitment, prospecting, and brand enhancement. But you don't own the network or the content, Byrne points out, and companies must accept that fact to be successful.

There's not one best choice, Byrne says. The point is to find the right fit for your particular application, budget, location, etc. In addition, you can use multiple tools for a single purpose or multiple purposes.

Whatever you do, Byrne says, you need to be aware of some key issues with social networking tools in general. First of all, your access to and control of what is said on social networks is often very limited. This is true for both internal and external applications. Also, backup and disaster-recovery provisions can be lacking. If something happens, it may be difficult to restore all the lost content. And, especially with internal tools, be aware that the interfaces are often oriented toward power users. Regular, nontechnical users may need a surprising amount of training and encouragement to master the tools. Obviously, that's less of a problem with the popular public networks (that's one reason some organizations are experimenting with using services like Facebook as the company intranet.)

Byrne left businesses with a short list of Dos and Don'ts for implementing social networking:

DON'T go behind IT's back.
But DON'T assume that what works for IT will work for the business as a whole.
DON'T underestimate the importance of systems and administrative services.
DO understand the difference between technology platforms and products.
DO use proven software evaluation tools -- try before you buy.

If Byrne's Interop session gave the expert perspective of social networking, the Unconference offered a view from the trenches, as about 15 tech folks from small and midsize businesses gathered to discuss the issues.

Here are some key points they raised:

  • Internal collaboration tools are much less mature than external social media tools.
  • The "inside/outside" dichotomy is false. What if an internal person asks for a contact you're connected with on LinkedIn? Many situations link internal and external social networking in unexpected ways.
  • Social networking is all about bringing more people into the conversation. But certain business conversations can't be public.
  • All employees should sign an online use agreement to govern their online behavior and how it relates to your company.
  • Social networks turn individuals into marketers for your company, but it can be very difficult to control the messages they send.
  • You can use unique TinyURLs for links in social networking posts, and use those URLs to track who has the most influence.
  • The rules of appropriate social networking behavior change based on the audience.
  • There is no inference of confidentiality on public networks.
  • The social networking presence of a job candidate can be a plus or minus, depending on how they're perceived.
  • There are businesses out there to help companies leverage social networking.
  • It's important to use business intelligence to analyze what's being said about your company, now and over time.
  • There are many companies--SkeltLab, Radian6, TechRigy, Sisomo, RightNow, and others--that can help you find conversations about your company, aggregate them, evaluate the positive/negative aspects, and help you respond to them.

That's all great, but I wanted to know how smaller companies get involved, when there may not be millions of people out there talking about them? The group responded that it's important to add value, not just pitch your products. The idea is to monitor people talking about the things your company does, and then join in with useful information and expertise that can help answer their questions and solve their problems. Good luck!

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