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Q&A With Cynthia Francis Of Reality Digital: Why Build A Social Community For Your Business?

With so many of your customers and potential customers using social media, can you afford not to? Increasingly, the answer is no. Launching a social media program is cheaper and faster than you might think, but beware of the pitfalls.

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By Benjamin Tomkins

now has 200 million registered members. grew more than 700% last year. Given this explosive growth, no can afford to ignore the opportunity of for building , attracting customers, and engaging clients. Many small and midsize businesses have had success with Facebook and other public social networks, while others have taken their strategy further to develop their own social communities where they control the environment from to user-created content.

Among the vendors that companies engage to build their own social communities is Reality Digital, a provider of white label for businesses. Companies use the Reality Digital software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform for social programs that designed to build brand awareness, engage customers, generate feedback, and boost sales. Recently, the company introduced Reality Digital Harmony, a self-service social media platform specifically for small and midsize businesses. Reality Digital co-founder and CEO Cynthia Francis spoke with bMighty about the mistakes businesses make when taking the plunge into social media, the different ways to generate content, and the cost in dollars and time required to make it really work.

bMighty: With the recession, how have you seen businesses change their approach to social media change?

Cynthia Francis: We saw a lot of people totally freaking out and doing nothing; for a time last fall, everyone froze. But after the holidays, people seemed to shake themselves off and recognize that they still had a business and they still needed to connect with customers in a cost-effective way. Social media provides an interesting way to connect with customers, to promote feedback, hold contests, and launch new initiatives. Social media offers a tremendous opportunity to promote your brand and deepen the relationship customers have with your brand.

bMighty: What's the biggest misconception people have about social media?

Francis: That it takes a lot of people and a lot of time. It doesn't. For example, we spend seven hours per week monitoring content for a very large client site. For a , you could spend less than 15 minutes a day monitoring your site and you'd be just fine. Of course, when you first set it up, you'll spend some hours participating in the community, but it's a choice not a requirement. If you're busy and don't log on for a week, the world doesn't end. Of course, it's great if you can check in once a week or even more.

bMighty: How should business gauge the value of social media?

Francis: The ROI really depends upon the metrics that are important to your business. If the value you're trying to derive is from the total amount of traffic, count page views and tie that to an increase or decrease in business; ad clicks are very measurable as well. Looking at the substance of comments and feedback is less quantifiable and it gets even more challenging if you're trying to discern an online-offline connection, but you can set up processes that allow you to measure that as well.

bMighty: What's the first step toward using social media for business?

Francis: Ask, "What are your potential customers doing?" and "How do you expect them to behave?" Then you match that to what your business needs. Often businesses jump ahead to concerns about brand value and monitoring or moderating activity. Do you pull negative things down to protect your brand? Or will that backfire and hurt your brand?

bMighty: Reality Digital depends upon companies launching their own social networks, but why invest in that when you can start a Facebook group for free?

Francis: There's a level where that may be the right approach: If you just want to have your name and your location and put your brand out there. However, there's no opportunity for revenue and no ownership of content. If you're a pizza parlor sponsoring a T-ball team, you may end up with a frat party video next to your page because of common keywords. In a group environment, you can't dictate your branding and you're not creating a community that's yours -- Facebook owns the content and it owns the advertising revenue. Businesses strive to improve with the consumer and create an environment where consumers will connect with each other, but a public social network, like Facebook, allows a business only limited control of the customer experience.

bMighty: What mistakes do you see businesses making when they start using social media?

Francis: Not knowing what the goal is, that's where we see people miss. They come to us and say they need a social media community and need to advertise the heck out of it, but they haven't thought about how they'll advertise, who the customer is, who will have access to the social network. The key is to really understand your audience. Is it families from the neighborhood? And furthermore, what neighborhood? The suburbs are a different market than the UC Berkeley campus, and that's different than a neighborhood in San Francisco.

bMighty: How much should a business owner expect to spend to launch a social network?

Francis: At the low end, our most self-service package is $499 per month [Reality Digital Harmony] and has no long-term commitment. We suggest to clients that they not create a social community for less than a 6-month time frame -- that's what it takes to really put together and develop a site that speaks to your customers. You can't expect a revenue stream immediately. However, it can be self-sustaining fairly quickly, but that depends upon your goals. If you're driving traffic to your bike shop, that's a different metric than promoting a new product launch or gathering product feedback. It all depends on how you focus the site.

bMighty: Can businesses rely upon to populate a social media site?

Francis: It depends upon the business. If your product lines already produce content, you'll probably have a higher percentage of professional content. If it's all user-generated, the production values will be lower. It depends upon what your product or service is, too -- customer Webcam product reviews may be just right for you. The key is to find the right mixture for your business, but, generally speaking, social media communities will almost always have more video and less text.

bMighty: What don't people know about social media that would surprise them?

Francis: We touched on this earlier, but most people think it's tremendously expensive and requires a heavy personnel footprint, They're shocked at the reality of how little time and expense is required. You don't need an entire team and [with SaaS] there's no infrastructure required.

Benjamin Tomkins is editor of

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