If you've ever read a blog, joined an online discussion group or uploaded a photo to Flickr, you've engaged in social media. Social media websites encourage users to share, change or otherwise participate in the site's content. Opinions, comments and dissection of news are encouraged, giving greater insight into what consumers and influencers are thinking.
In the past, social media sites--especially social networking sites such as MySpace--have been seen as a vehicle mainly for young people. Now, however, people of all ages and professions read blogs, tag articles, join online discussion groups, have profiles on professional social networking sites and post video files. In fact, according to a recent industry report by comScore, more than half of the visitors to social networking websites such as MySpace, Facebook, Flickr and Live Journal are now 35 and older.
In terms of PR, social media is a maturing business tool, offering new and innovative ways to drive business and communicate to customers--often using less expensive techniques than traditional advertising or marketing campaigns. It's worth being aware of the various elements that make up the social media landscape, and concentrating on the ones that are particularly applicable to your business.
The blogosphere has become a valuable resource for tracking industry trends and hot-button topics. Unfiltered and opinionated, blogs combine the insightfulness of industry journals with the instant feedback of a focus group.
For small business owners, blogs offer a wealth of opportunity. However, to reap the rewards, you must first understand the medium and then determine the best way to leverage this dynamic and far-reaching online universe.
A blog's interactivity offers the opportunity to extend your company's messages to a wider audience. Providing commentary in response to a blog post, for instance, can help you position yourself as a thought leader and subtly market your products and services.
Small business owners can also create their own blogs to showcase themselves and their business philosophy. However, you should first consider the upsides and the downsides of blogging before proceeding. While blogs can elevate your profile, establish credibility and open a two-way conversation with customers, they also require a significant amount of time and effort.
As with any foray into media, bloggers must be prepared to accept, and potentially refute, criticism. Think carefully before putting your finger to keyboard, because once a response is posted, there's no turning back. What seemed like a hard-hitting response at the time could be detrimental in the long run.
Online video sharing sites represent one of the fastest-growing media sectors, with sites such as YouTube attracting thousands of viewers every day. For small business marketers, web video can be an especially enticing proposition because producing and distributing the content is far less expensive than creating traditional broadcast materials. Online video offers the potential to "level the playing field" with larger companies.
To maximize exposure, once a video is featured on a site such as YouTube, it's easy to send out an e-mail to your contacts with a direct link to the clip. One way to indirectly submit content to video sharing websites is through multimedia news releases, a platform that combines text with digital video, audio and still images, and includes social bookmarking capabilities.
As with all marketing, the key to success is knowing your audience. YouTube viewers, for instance, are attuned to new, interesting and often humorous material. For an online video to have a truly substantial impact, it must be compelling enough to generate a groundswell of interest that leads to viral sharing. Creativity and catchiness are as important as messaging.
The bottom line: When considering an online video campaign, make sure you're pursuing it for the right reasons--to grow your business.
Social Media News Releases
Traditionally, news releases take a text-only form, emulating the style and format of a news article. The social media news release, on the other hand, is a news release that combines text with a host of social and multimedia elements, including photos and video, links to blogs, digital tags, RSS feeds and search engine optimization.
The social media news release is intended to help companies reach their markets directly using new social media tools. This level of interactivity is especially beneficial to bloggers because it allows them to select information, and the format encourages readers to provide feedback to the authors and their websites or blogs.
While full integration of the social media release may be some years away, for some small businesses--especially those in the technology industry--it may prove immediately useful in reaching an audience of tech-savvy bloggers and reporters. The relative novelty value of the template may even gain your business attention.
Bookmarking and News Sharing
One way to elevate the readership of your news releases online is to use a newswire service that includes buttons for tagging the release on sites such as Digg and Del.icio.us.
Digg is a rating site that lists the most popular online stories from sources including blogs, traditional news sites and company websites. You can use Digg to track the popularity of news about your business, and to see the reaction to specific news releases.
Del.icio.us is a popular tool for bookmarking and finding interesting sites on the web. Del.icio.us links can be incorporated into news releases in much the same way as Digg tags, making it easy for readers to save the announcement as a favorite.
Social Networking Sites
While sites such as MySpace are useful for musicians, they're unlikely to attract the sort of customers--or dialogue--that would be suitable to encourage business transactions. However, professional networking sites do exist, and the number of industry-related networks is growing steadily.
LinkedIn is probably the most well-known social networking site for professionals. Users display their professional background and links to other people, usually in related industries.
As social networking grows, so will its complexity and influence. Even if such sites don't offer immediate routes to transactions, it's worth keeping abreast of developments that could influence future business activity.
Social media sites are ever-evolving, and so are the opportunities they offer. One example of this is the interactive site Second Life , a "parallel world" where participants live, meet and exchange goods and services. Second Life currently has more than 1 million "residents"--real people who have created avatars--who spend real money on goods, services and even real estate that only exist in the online world.
Another recent development is Twitter , which allows users to keep their friends, family, website or blog readers up-to-date on what they're doing, moment by moment. (See our recent profile of Twitter, " Reinventing the Conversation .") Twitter represents an ever-evolving, real-time online conversation.
There are drawbacks to involvement in social media. The constant and consistent interaction requires substantial time and effort--something small business owners have in scarce amounts. However, by keeping abreast of developments and experimenting in various formats, entrepreneurs have an opportunity to be ever more in touch with customers, influencers and the media.