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Social Networking Lessons of 2011 What social-media fans taught small businesses about marketing.

By Gail Goodman Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Social Networking Lessons of 2011I like to call 2011 "The Year of Social Media." Small businesses, franchises, nonprofits and entrepreneurs all got into the social-media game -- throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what stuck. To many, it probably seemed a chaotic mess of apps and gadgets flooding the market. Businesses had a lot of options to try to connect with customers, and some clear lessons emerged from the chaos.

1. Loyal customers are your best channel to new business.
A lot of marketing energy is spent on branching out to find new customers. That's fantastic and necessary. What 2011 showed us, though, is that a loyal customer is still your best customer and ultimately your least expensive path to new customers. Loyal customers are more likely to engage with you and your brand community -- and connect you to their networks on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social destinations.

Related: 5 Ways to Show Customers You Care

Your raving fans share your enthusiasm when they "like" your page, retweet your post or click the social share button on your e-newsletter. Happy customers make word-of-mouth referrals to their friends and networks and share kudos on review sites and in local online business directories. The social engagement of your happy customers is visible to their connections and to prospects visiting your social sites. Your best customers will help bring you more customers, so don't forget to engage them as you seek new business via social media channels.

2. Social participation fuels your marketing.
It may sounds backwards, but smaller scale is actually a big advantage in the world of social media. Unlike big companies, small businesses can directly engage with each and every commenter on social media. Use your small scale to your advantage.

  • Participate in conversations with your customers. Start conversations on social destinations and jump in to fan the flames of the liveliest ones.
  • Respond personally to customers' questions, comments, complaints and compliments. Keep people talking and give 'em something to talk about.
  • Social isn't passive. Include a "social call to action" that inspires your followers to share your post or click through to your website or blog. Everything should end with a request for participation, whether it's asking visitors for a comment, photo or story, or inviting them to click to join the conversation elsewhere.
  • Authenticity typically comes very naturally to small businesses, so use it to your advantage. While tools make it easy to update your social pages, don't automate too much. Customers can tell when a Twitter feed or Facebook page is on permanent autopilot. Engage your social media audience one on one. They want to know a real person is listening -- and responding.

3. Consumer opinions matter more than ever.
A recent Nielsen report suggests that word-of-mouth endorsement is critical: 78 percent of consumers said they trust recommendations from other consumers, while only 14 percent trust advertising. We trust consumer review even if we don't know the reviewer. That review or recommendation gets even more weight when it comes from our colleagues, friends or family.

Related: Three Ways to Spark Engaging Social Conversations

Social media have given consumers a platform and unprecedented market clout. Just look at the big businesses that did 180-degree turnarounds in 2011, when customers took to social media to complain about changes. Bank of America and Netflix are dramatic examples. One voice starts a ripple, which can swell into a social-media tidal wave.

Reviews, opinions and recommendations -- good and bad -- matter. Mobile apps have enabled consumers to check out a restaurant or retail store before buying and post reviews on the fly. Be sure you know what customers are saying about you online and correct any problems before a dissatisfied grumble erupts into a frustrated scream.

On the flip side, your loyal customers are your best brand evangelists. Thank them for any positive comments they make about your business on social media. Invite customers to share positive feelings about your products or services. At the end of the day, your customer experience is the anchor of your social experience.

4. Success requires testing.
There's a lot of trial and error in social media. Sometimes the social content we think will generate the most response gets none; other things we post spark unexpected discussions. To be more successful, businesses should measure their results and build on what works. In addition to analyzing your email marketing data and surveying your customers, keep track of the number of Facebook fans and Twitter followers, campaigns that generate the most buzz, and the content that inspires social sharing, comments and retweets.

Hopefully, you tried new a few new things in 2011 and gained some insights from your experiences. Next year, successful marketers will integrate their social, local, mobile and promotional campaigns. Look for more on how to do that here.

Related: Your Customers Are Talking. Are You Listening?

Gail Goodman is the author of Engagement Marketing: How Small Business Wins In a Socially Connected World (Wiley, 2012) and CEO of Waltham, Mass.-based Constant Contact Inc., a provider of email marketing, event marketing, social media marketing, local deal and online survey tools and services for small businesses, associations and nonprofits.

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