A quick overview of social media for business

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Social computing is not a fad. Nor is it something that will pass you or your company by. Gradually, social computing will impact almost every role, at every kind of company, in all parts of the world.” – Forrester Research

Social media can be summed up in a few powerful words (The five pilars): Community, Conversation, Participation, Openness and Connection. It is the new way of speading the word about your company. It’s not the only way for sure, but, the effective use of social media tools has become an important and effective tool for any company that operates online or off. The concepts are simple, but the opportunities are broad.

In the search for the perfect definition for social media, I must refer to the opening statement of Social Media on Wikipedia:

It’s a fusion of sociology and technology, transforming monologue (one to many) into dialog (many to many) and is the democratization of information, transforming people from content readers into publishers.

Getting right to the point, here are some tools that you should investigate first if you’re interested in exploring online marketing and business growth through social media.

1) Get a blog

A blog is a large part of the puzzle. It provides you with a casual platform to publish information and interact with the public on your website. It fulfills all of the 5 pilars of social media mentioned above by allowing you to be open and share information directly on your website. It allows you to have a direct conversation with your customers as well as create community, provide support and put a face to your business. It allows you and your customers to connect immediately and it allows them to participate and contribute to the conversation. Most of all, a blog allows you to be open about your thoughts, policies, plans  and potenitally the inner workings of your company – therefore breaking down the barriers normally created between a company and the public. In addition, a blog is a great place to combine all aspects of online marketing into one place. (search engine rankings, subscription, email marketing sign-up, the building of your brand and reputation as a leader in your niche, as well as a place to offer other ways to connect through other social media such as Twitter, delicious, video, photos, etc.

One note of advice on blogging – Don’t use one of the free blogging services. The blog is not on your site, it is not customizable and it disconnects users from your main website. We use WordPress – free software that allows us to setup completely custom blogs for our clients that reside on the same server as their website. This is the only way to do a blog if you’re serious about it.

2) Microblogging

Microblogging is the practice of provding useful information to the public in 140 characters or less. The leader in this field is Twitter. Twitter is a powerful tool because it allows you to build a list of followers – people who are interested in what you do – that recieve short bits of information from you at the moment you publish. As you can probably imagine, Twitter can be highly effective if you use it correctly. Imagine having several thousand people following you that are really interested in what you do or say. At any moment you can decide to give them advice, throw out a special promotion, remind them about a special event or simply pass on a recommendation from a fellow follower. Twitter is free to use, and when it’s used on a regular basis, it can fulfill all the pilars of social media with participation/conversation (tweeting back and forth with your followers), Openness (offering advice and information), Community/Connectedness (Only your followers see your tweets and your followers decide if they want to stay connected to you). Follow me on Twitter here.

3) Social Networks

The concept of social networks is continually evolving. In the near future I believe the landscape will be completely different than it is today. But for now, to illustrate this concept I’d like to explain Facebook. There are other services out there like MySpace and Bebo but Facebook is the clear leader at the moment. Facebook essentially allows you to build a network of followers who are essentially accepted into your inner circle. The concept is similar to Twitter except that it’s broader. Facebook allows you to microblog so your “friends” can see what you’re doing and saying, but it also allows you to do many more things that help others to understand what you like and what you’re all about. How to use Facebook to promote your business is up to the individual but there is no doubt that there is a lot of opportunity to connect through this popular network if you handle it properly. Currently I don’t use Facebook for business purposes as I choose to keep it for social connectivity with old friends, current friends and family. It’s going to be an experiment of mine to roll out a Facebook page for my business to explore the opportunities. Facebook definitely fulfills all 5 of the social media pilars. Even if you don’t use it for promoting your business, it’s an extremely fun way to stay connected.

4) Content Communities

In addition to written advice and microblogging, there are other opportunites available to connect online these days. Depending on your business, people can find you in ways that you’d have never dreamed of a few years ago. Post some pictures of your products or events on Flickr and tag them with keywords or by your location. There’s a good chance that someone will search for an image and find their way to your site. Post a video on YouTube and embed it into your blog. Again, YouTube is searchable and people will find you. Encourage people to bookmark your site on Delicious. Do this enough times and people will find you as a reliable source within your niche. The opportunities are endless and so are the ways that you can drive people to your site if you’re creative. Again, all of these services allow you to fulfill the 5 pilars by encouraging participation (ever made a comment on a Flickr photo?), being open, connecting in creative ways… on and on. The best part is that they’re all free. (Did I mention this?)

5) Forums, Podcasts, Vblogs, Wikis, Chat, oh my!

I’m going to lump some things into the closing of this post. Not because I think they’re any less important, but because there is just so much to cover. Hopefully I’ve made my point about the concept of social media by introducing you to the top concepts, but your opportunities are endless. Depending on your company, your industry, your niche and many other factors, you might benefit greatly from putting a forum on your site to help in customer support. You might consider publishing a podcast (an audio download) of your CEO discussing a new product release. You might post a video of the same thing so people can put a face to a name or demonstrate your new product so people can see it in action! Or, you could add online chat to your website where you can immediately connect with your customers in an anonymous way – therefore promoting honest communication.

Really, the effective use of social media in business is constantly evolving. But the concepts are simple. Connect to people, form relationships, make it personal, let your story be known, and grow your business online. This is what social media for business is all about.