Social Networking

As we come to the close of the last quarter of the year, I look back to the close of the previous quarter, where I briefly digressed from this introductory series on on-line marketing to take a closer look at Twitter. The fact that that article was one of my most popular ever makes me optimistic that this more generic primer on the topic of social networking in your marketing campaigns may be just what the doctor ordered.

What Is Social Networking?

Wikipedia defines a social network thusly:

A social network is a social structure made of individuals (or organizations) called “nodes,” which are tied (connected) by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as friendship, kinship, common interest, financial exchange, dislike, sexual relationships, or relationships of beliefs, knowledge or prestige.

In other words, a social network is exactly what the rest of us would simply call a network. You have a network of friends, family, business associates, classmates, etc…. So, if that’s the case, is “social networking” just some newfangled jargon dreamt up by marketing folk for what they used to call “networking”?

Put bluntly, yes, and no. When we business folk use the term “networking”, we still mean what we’ve meant for decades: going to events, passing out business cards, shaking hands, calling up old contacts, etc…. When we say “social networking”, we mean doing those exact same things, only on-line. Don’t ask me why we call it “social networking” and not “on-line networking”; it doesn’t make any more sense to me than it does to you, but it is the way it is.

OK, that’s all well-and-good, but what the heck is networking when we’re talking about being on-line? Basically, it means signing up with and using one of the many on-line social networking sites: Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, Plaxo, Friendster, Orkut [Ed. Orkut has been discontinued, and now redirects to Google’s home page], etc…, etc…. Each of these sites lets you do slightly different things, and connects you with a slightly different subset of your real-life social network. Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, and Orkut all connect you with your “friends”. LinkedIn and Plaxo connect you with your business associates. Twitter connects you with your “followers”.

Why Use Social Networking Sites?

So, now that you know what it is, why should you care about it? Two reasons. First, everybody knows that the best leads are referrals. They’re best because, no matter how good your marketing and messaging, a single word (good or bad) from a trusted friend or associate is infinitely more persuasive. Referrals come with trust — trust that you just can’t buy. Connecting and engaging with your various social networks keeps you front-of-mind with your various contacts. And if you’re front of mind, then they’re far more likely to recommend you when someone in their social network is in need of your product or service.

Second, no matter how successful you are, budget is always an issue. And social networking is free.

Free, you say? OK, perhaps it isn’t completely free. But you don’t have to pay the social networking sites to use them. What you do have to do (at least to use them effectively) is engage with them. Signing up with a site (or a few), and even going through the process of connecting with your contacts really isn’t sufficient. In order for it to be of any value to you, you have to engage with it. Exactly what it means to engage depends a little bit on which site you’re using, but, basically, you have to regularly add content. You can kind of think of them in the same way you would a blog: if you don’t put anything on it, no one will care about it. Exactly how much you put on any one of them really depends on your level of comfort, and how much you have to say, but I’d say for any of them you should be doing something at least twice per week.

Now, once you start talking about the time to put something on each of 3 or more different social networking sites, more than once per week, you’re starting to talk about a serious time commitment. So, maybe it’s not quite free, but it is pretty close. And, depending on the nature of your business, maybe you can get someone who works for you to integrate this into his regular activities. I have one client that runs a local wine bar. He gave responsibility for Facebook to one of his servers, and responsibility for Twitter to another. It only takes them a few minutes a day, but it engages them in the business and gives them a sense of responsibility. Of course, you still have to manage them — to make sure that what they’re putting out there actually represents your business the way you want it represented — but this can be a great way to reward valuable employees, and get you some great word-of-mouth marketing.