Use Social Networks Effectively

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In the current economy, business networking is more important than ever — we need to use lots of different techniques for finding clients. Social networks can be a great addition to our marketing toolboxes. Since I started actively using social networks (only a year and a half ago!), I've reconnected with old friends, and have gotten quite of bit of business that can be directly attributed to connections that were facilitated through these networks.

But social networks can also be great time-wasters, too. However, If you focus on the marketing aspects of the networks, the time spent using them can consist of, as Meryl says, "zero-guilt activities." Here are some tips for using social networks as effective marketing tools.

Join the active networks. There are literally thousands of social networks to choose from (digFoot lists over 3,700). But most are small, not very active, or of interest only in specific fields or geographic regions. I've spent the last month looking at many networks, and have decided that for me, it makes sense to focus on just four.

  • LinkedIn. Often described as "Facebook for business," LinkedIn combines a very large user base, excellent tools for finding connections, and lively discussion groups. Its system for making recommendations is very well-managed. It has so many features that its menu system can be obscure at times, but it's well worth learning to navigate through the site.
  • Facebook. The growth of this network is phenomenal — it's claiming 700,000 new users every day! Even six months ago, most of my Facebook friends were under 30. Now, even we in the older generation have discovered it: I now have almost as many Facebook friends as I do LinkedIn connections, even though I joined LinkedIn several months before Facebook. Facebook is still a much more informal place than LinkedIn, but it's becoming a valuable business tool as Facebook Pages and Facebook Groups (see below) evolve.
  • Twitter. Technically, Twitter isn't a social network, but it can be great for business communication and networking with customers, colleagues and friends. Facebook is highlighting its status update functionality to make it more "Twitterish," so we'll see how the two services compete.
  • Yelp. This review site is new on my radar, but so far, I'm impressed with how active it is (at least in my part of the world). Now that it has a function allowing businesses to provide details of their services, it may become a very useful marketing tool, especially since it is now integrating a way to share reviews on Facebook. It is geographically based, however, and home workers may not want to provide a public street address.

Create pages for your business on LinkedIn, Facebook and Yelp. You may also want to create a Twitter account for your business that is separate from your personal account.

Join groups within the social networks where people you know are likely to hang out. In my opinion, the reason that LinkedIn and Facebook haven't become unmanageable as they've gotten bigger, is that they've encouraged the development of small groups where people can talk about shared interests. Increase your credibility and visibility by using your professional expertise to add to these discussions.

Post frequently, but judiciously. Meryl's comments about Twitter overload applies to the social networks as well. I'll also add that services allowing one to post simultaneously to multiple networks, such as, are great, but should be used carefully. The networks have different audience demographics, and this should be kept in mind when you're deciding what and where to post.

Use the networks' automated tools for finding people you know. The networks can, with your permission, review your address book and see who you know who's already on their network. They also have a "people you may know" function that recommends possible contacts. LinkedIn's system has worked well for me; Facebook's seems to be less accurate. The recommendations presented to you are based on background data (schools attended, former jobs) you provide to the networks, so it's worth the time to provide complete information in your profiles — assuming you are comfortable with their privacy policies.

Use RSS feeds to follow what the members of your network are doing. The folks who run the social networks want you to visit their web sites, of course, but I find it more convenient to follow the activity of my connections through an RSS reader.

Add your Facebook instant message account to your IM program. Facebook's instant message system can be added to multi-protocol IM programs. On my Mac, I prefer Adium; the PC users in my company like Pidgin or Digsby.

Use privacy settings to minimize email notifications. For Facebook, the AllFacebook blog has an excellent privacy primer; note, though, that Facebook is in the process of updating its privacy settings. And check out PC World's discussion of privacy settings for LinkedIn. You'll want to use these settings to control how and when the social networks email you. I find that since I follow the networks' RSS feeds, I can turn off most of their emails.

It's exciting to watch as the social media landscape changes every day. In the near future, it's likely that some social networks will become important business tools, while others will fade away. In the meantime, we can learn how best to use these tools to increase the success of our endeavors.