Who Knows You?

Social Networking Brings Buzz, Cost Savings, and Customers

In a sluggish economy, can you afford to rev up your marketing?

Using online social networks to market your business can bring fast results, at little or no expense. You can do market research, or collaborate with customers on product development and support. You can advertise, and build your brand and customer base.

When a small manufacturer launched a new household blender, it invested $50 in a series of "Will it Blend?" video clips showing the product pureeing lava lamps and iPhones. The clips were posted on YouTube and rapidly spread across social networks. Visitor hits on YouTube and the company's site reached 160 million.

While experimenting with a new Facebook platform, a small web-marketing agency developed a simple application, Cool Greeting Cards. To date the site has 5003 monthly active users, compared to Hallmark eCards' 3720 users.

Essentially, social networking is using the Internet to forge online communities through shared interests and activities, which are sustained by continuous interaction. Examples include blogs, forums, and sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, delicious, LinkedIn, and Flickr.

Why Socialize in Cyberspace

It's a big market universe. A recent report by MarketTools found that 68 percent of U.S. adults visit online community, blog, or social network sites, and nearly 20 percent of U.S. adults visit at least one daily. The research also shows connections to buying behavior: 33 percent of the visitors say they visit the sites to research a product before making their purchase decision.

Using social networking to market your business can bring big benefits, including:

  • Better brand recall. Brand recall is four times greater through social networking than search engine marketing, says social networking strategist Laurel Papworth.
  • More contact. Customers visit online communities nine times more often and stay five times longer than they do static company websites, adds Papworth.
  • Faster product development. Rapid back-and-forth interaction between your company and social network users can substantially shorten product-development cycles, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Better forecasting. User feedback on forums can be a potent source of consumer feedback, helping your company spot trends faster and at lower cost than focus groups or surveys, the Wall Street Journal article also reports.
  • Lower customer support costs. Peer-to-peer interaction can slash support costs as customers post problems in network forums and dozens of users rush in with solutions, says Papworth.

Introducing Your Company

Using social networking to market a business is strategically complex, but tactically cheap and easy. The tools for social networking—such as Typepad, WordPress, and Blogger—are designed for consumers and generally free. Strategically, it requires investments in staff time and may require cultural change, says Brian Ellefritz, senior manager of social media marketing at Cisco.

To gauge the viability of social networking for your business, ask questions such as:

  • Do our target customers use social media in ways that could benefit us? Do they discuss, review, or recommend products and services like ours? What sites do they use? Find out by using Forrester Research's free Groundswell profile tool and by doing web searches on your product type, your company and product names, and your product type.
  • Are we willing to listen to customers and relinquish the control of one-way communications?
  • Do we really want to collaborate and develop relationships with our customers? Will customers respond with behaviors that benefit our business?
  • Will we participate transparently (be honest about who we are and in what we say)?
  • Do we have the time to sustain the ongoing communication required?
  • Will we develop and enforce policies on content, privacy, and security that serve and protect our business, employees, and customers?

Keep in mind that social network users put a premium on contributions. Some ways to increase your participation: comment on reputable, well-trafficked blogs in your industry, or contribute questions, suggestions, and resources to online forums. Adding value to the online community is key to success, says a study by Deloitte consultant Ed Moran reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Social networks can bring you closer to your customers while exposing your business to a broad audience, yielding marketing riches from little financial investment. It's all about who knows you.

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