Once the purview of teens, tweens and B-list celebrities all too willing to share too much information about themselves, social networking has definitely moved up in the world.
By now, you probably engage to some extent: your company may have a Facebook page; someone in your marketing or PR department most assuredly has a Twitter account. But despite the millions of words that have been written about this phenomenon—or because of them—you remain confused about the best ways to use social networking to enhance your business.
Make no mistake: you avoid utilizing social media at your peril. If your competition isn’t using it already, they have plans to do so, and that will impact your market share. More importantly, your customers are online, both looking for information and providing it.
The four tips I’m about to suggest will help you efficiently allocate your time and your media dollars while delivering the best return on that investment.
For the past 35 years, focus groups increasingly became a B2B marketer’s go-to means of getting information about trends and customers. The more familiar you are with focus groups, the more you understand their limitations. No matter how carefully selected, they represent a very small percentage of customers. One overpowering participant can skew results. And, they’re expensive.
Social networks, on the other hand, with blogs, tweets, Facebook posts and the like, let you know exactly what thousands of people are really thinking right now. By tracking them, you can get feedback on your products, find out how your competition is perceived, and learn exactly which issues and challenges your customers and potential customers are most concerned about.
Research, of course, is a two-way street. Your potential customers are looking for answers to their problems that you could be providing by becoming part of the online conversation.
2) Provoke Movement
There are 126 million blogs on the Internet (as tracked by BlogPulse). That was as of January—there are probably several hundred thousand more by now. With so much competition, your company’s blog has to provide people with really compelling reasons to read it. The hard truth is: they don’t care about your products and services—they care about solving their problems.
Take, for example, John Garvin of Abylity, a company that analyzes clients’ telecom costs and helps them put together the most cost-effective packages of services. Garvin developed a blog strategy, designed to establish his credentials in the industry. He posts his insights on the industry trends and controversies that affect his customers, providing added value, generating comments and establishing credibility. The content is developed to be SEO friendly, and links to the blog are posted on LinkedIn. As a result, Garvin is achieving his commercial objectives and enhancing his status as a respected resource, one potential customers are more likely to trust when in the market for the kinds of services he provides.
3) Socialize Your Collaboration
Virtual collaboration has become the buzzword and lifeline for businesses all over the globe. But in these days of reduced budgets and slashed sales forces it’s become increasingly important to create new and affordable ways of achieving it.
Like social networking, for instance. You can use it to virtualize your sales force when you don’t have enough “feet on the street.” Sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Google Buzz provide access to communities that share both interest in your industry and leads. As a member of that community, you can link with people in your potential customers’ companies that you might not otherwise meet. What’s more, your existing customers who are members of these groups are in a position to share their experiences with your business and recommend it—a double-edged sword, often driven positively by excellence in customer service.
4) Excel in Customer Service
No matter how good your product or service, a customer service representative who seems indifferent or inept can alienate a customer for life. Like B2C companies, B2B companies can use social media sites to track customer complaints and proactively address them.
Because a disgruntled customer now has so many public venues to air his or her complaint, large organizations like Xerox, Kodak, Dell and American Express have created forums on their Web sites to encourage direct communication with their customers. This enables them to resolve issues before they metastasize into very large, very public problems.
No matter the size of your enterprise, you can create a similar entity or make use of your presence on Facebook, Twitter and the like to initiate a one-on-one conversation.
With all the buzz about social media, it’s easy to feel that you just have to dive in. Don’t. Instead, take a deep breath and analyze your current customer research. Think about ways you can provide thought leadership in your industry. Pause for a moment and consider how you could benefit from an enhanced sales force. Also take a hard look at the customer service experience you provide and how it could be improved.
And then, with a well thought out plan in place, jump.
Claire Butkus is VP of brand and market strategy at STC Associates. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.