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Soup Up Your Social Sales Channels

If you make time for it and know your stuff, you can chat your way to more Web traffic.

We get it. You're already juggling scads of operational, sales, tech, administrative and marketing tasks, and you're not totally sold on the value of social networking spaces. Are they gigantic time wasters or strong brand-building sales drivers? Multiple experts opine on the benefits (or lack thereof) of social networking portals like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook with gusto, and if you take a poll of your peers, you are likely to gather ardent differing opinions as well. Before you invest any time or money in social networking platforms or campaigns, here's what you should know.

Fact one: There are fabulous success stories of intrepid entrepreneurs who have immersed themselves in one or more of these venues. Take, for example, Massachusetts-based Laura Fitton--aka Pistachio on Twitter--a single mom who went from obscurity to being quoted in The Wall Street Journal and meeting with Google gurus as a result of her creative and insightful tweets on life and social media use.

The other side of the social networking coin--lots of wasted time, aimless (and inaccurate) ranting and wheel spinning--all done by seemingly earnest folks looking to leverage these portals. The reasons vary as to why so many people are not seeing results from playing in the social networking sandbox. As with other marketing campaigns that fall short, many have no defined strategy or objective, and others are flailing because they are poor communicators. Still others have no idea what they are doing--and it shows.

According to Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody and keynote presenter at a recent Search Engine Strategies conference, one diverse group of multitaskers (who "met" in a chat room via a shared admiration of Josh Groban) quickly racked up $16,000 toward a 21st birthday present when they started to talk about making a donation to a charity in the popular warbler's name. This quickly grew to more than $75,000 in donations--all because of the availability of a Grobanite social networking platform, which enabled a diverse fan base to connect, communicate and act.

An expert on collaboration tools, social networks, peer-to-peer sharing and collaborative filtering, Shirky says the power of social networks lies in their ability to allow diverse groups of people to coordinate (which many times leads to action).

"What we did not have (prior to the internet) was a medium for people to gather and communicate . . . so the internet and social networks have become the medium for organization without organizations." Shirky also observes that tools only change society when accompanied by motivation that gets people to change their behavior.

To put this into perspective in your own world, think about the number of app-obsessed people who are net-connected almost 24/7. Then think about any tween- to college-age kids you know. For better or worse, most are in a constant state of connection. Even when watching TV, they chat with multiple friends on a laptop and tweet with lightning speed about the show they are watching--all seemingly at once.

A cursory review of shoppers, commuters and restaurant patrons at any time of the day or night will turn up diverse demographic markets that are tweeting, instant messaging, texting and/or net surfing via a variety of mobile technology instruments.

And while my 84-year-old mom may not choose to be that connected, she does toodle around Facebook and Skypes on a regular basis to see what her grandchildren and extended family are up to, rather than just pick up the phone. That's a huge behavioral shift that cannot be ignored by any business owner.

Charlene Li, co-author of Groundswell and another keynote presenter at SES San Jose, presented evidence about how national brands are tapping into this behavioral communications shift, saying Southwest Airlines has 50 people who write blogs. A guy writes about adding Milwaukee to its roster, and Southwest gets 98 posts from readers all over the country.

According to Li, Twitter is also being used by Southwest to drive sales. Southwest's PR person spends 20 percent of her time on Twitter posting specials, resulting in $3 million in sales through a unique URL. Now that's measurable ROI that can't be argued with, but Li says there's more than that. When Southwest got angry feedback from a twitterer, that twitterer got an immediate response in a very public, searchable arena. And because there was swift interaction and closure, the result was a happy customer instead of an irate one. Li's point: Social networking portals allow engagement that did not happen before because, in most cases, the consumer had to jump through hoops to reach a live body. Twitter allowed this kind of immediate dialogue to happen in a public forum with unlimited news expansion/sharing possibilities.

Li cites a personal example about Comcast instituting Comcastcares via Twitter. She pings on her phone that she's having a problem. Li made no call to Comcast, but someone named Frank is there to write back to her . "Can I help??" According to Li, Comcast is facilitating dialogue and new ways to build relationships, replacing the frustrated caller who's put on hold and has to talk to computerized voices. Because of this people-centric focus and viral sharing, lots of people, in addition to Comcast's current customers, noticed what was happening. The result: blogosphere and major media coverage. Now that's customer service on steroids, and a major ka-ching for Comcast.

So we all agree it's a brilliant sales portal, right? But what can a time- or tech-challenged small-business owner do with all this data?

Adapting Social Networking to Fuel Small-Business Web Traffic and Sales

You can expand your brand reach and drive sales by using social networking for several reasons:

  • The way the internet has facilitated new behaviors and connectivity
  • How major search engines categorize information
  • The plethora of niche-specific public forums that have developed in a variety of social networking platforms.

All of these allow for direct contact with rich target pools in a trackable way.

The good news is that you can take advantage of all the promotional pluses these viral networks offer at your own speed. The best news is that, right now, all these interaction portals are free.

It doesn't matter whether you are connected every waking hour or you're someone who dabbles several hours a week, like Amanda Steinberg, founder and CEO of DailyWorth, an entrepreneurial venture that sends out a daily e-mail offering fiscal advice for women.

Steinberg, who posts four to five times a day on Twitter and Facebook, says Twitter alone is the third greatest contributor to her web traffic (which includes tweets, retweets and following new people). "My only strategy is to be authentically and consistently engaged, and to participate on a regular basis. People will be naturally interested in you when you talk to them or retweet their words. For me, it's simply that real engagement translates. I'm not that calculated about it (as calculated as I am on, say, how much I will pay for an ad)."

Then there's Juliet Johnson, who decided to stand in front of "traffic" instead of trying to create her own. After Johnson implemented intensive activity in a variety of online venues, including establishing and working business profile identities on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, Juliet Johnson Staging, her high-end home staging firm in northern New Jersey, yielded first-page search engine rankings and almost doubled its sales. Johnson's "publish, share, discuss" approach in social networking and other online spaces pumped precious "Google juice" into the net and put her on the radar screen of numerous prospects. Mixing business and lifestyle facets (in addition to her staging expertise, Johnson is a mother, a red wine lover and a Giants fan), she researched and participated in various social networking mom groups, moms who work from home, etc.

Before you jump into the social networking scene for your business, take a tip from Groundswell's Li, who says you need to decide what you're trying to achieve in your social activities, based around one of four goals: listening, having dialogue, supporting your customers, or innovating in response to customer feedback. Your ultimate actions should tie directly into your goals.

While you might personally not "get" what the fuss is all about, odds are that more and more of your target markets are playing in social networking spaces. With authentic, savvy "chatting," you can to tap into, and benefit from, all that social networking has to offer. Li's formula for beefed-up web traffic and social networking success: First listen to what people are saying. Armed with the right knowledge, you can develop strong relationships, and then sales will come.

As president of Pomona, N.Y.-based marketing-advantage and founder of WomenCentric, Pattie Simone empowers ambitious women, companies and entrepreneurs worldwide, sharing smart new media, client engagement, entrepreneurial and communications expertise as a techpreneur, consultant, speaker and video blogger.

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