Stop, Collaborate and Engage: Small Business Communication and Social Media Tools for Entrepreneurs
The ways that people communicate have changed drastically, even over the past year. Many small businesses are now realizing the power that social media initiatives offer to their marketing goals. Effective tools for small business communication are on the rise and work wonders - as long as you know how to use them.
During the past six months, you've probably learned what a "tweet" is and what it means to "friend" someone. Though both are interesting new forms of interaction, their applications to small business communication are less clear.
Twitter and Facebook are, at their most basic levels, additional channels aiding in small business communication. Like print or broadcast advertising, these social media initiatives allow a company to directly communicate with consumers. Though unlike advertising, these services allow for two-way communication where your audience - which includes customers, prospects, advocates, government entities and the general public - can respond. It is this engagement where many companies fall flat.
Kicking Off Your Social Media Initiatives
Simply setting up a Twitter handle and Facebook page does not plug you into the social media ether. Managing these accounts and consistently updating them is vital, so much so that many large companies are hiring full-time employees to man their social media initiatives. For entrepreneurs with limited time, there are many applications that can help you manage content for both services in one place, like Digsby (which has instant messaging integration as well), Brizzly or TweetDeck.
For entrepreneurs new to Twitter or other social media initiatives, the best approach is to do a few searches on words that are relevant to your business and try to find a handful of experts in your field to follow. Then, spend your first few days just "listening" to the conversation from these experts, resisting the urge to start singing the praises of your product or broadcasting your message. Once you get a feel for the kinds of things people talk about and how they do it on Twitter, start with the 2, 2, 2 rule. Post 2 original things, re-tweet two posts you find interesting or useful, and reply to two people about something they tweeted. This is a good way to be a valuable participant and to increase your "followers" number as people find the things you have to say to be useful.
For most entrepreneurs, a significant investment of time and resources strictly for social media initiatives is not feasible. Depending on a company's level of commitment to increasing its small business communication efforts, social media may not be the right channel, right now. But, for those companies that can invest resources to examine the social media landscape, determine if it is right for their business and actively engage in dialogue, Twitter and Facebook can be powerful tools to grow their small business communication strategy.
Though Twitter and Facebook are good starting points, if these social media darlings are where your social media knowledge ends, you need to know about the many other small business communication technologies that allow entrepreneurs to interact with customers and engage prospects.
Oldies but goodies...
The social media landscape has significantly changed the face of small business communication, but it does not mean previous technologies have been rendered useless. "Old" technologies, such as e-mail newsletters, instant messaging and message boards are still active and can still increase productivity (and sales!). Many entrepreneurs already have a strong understanding of these technologies and have probably used them in the past. Consider dusting off that old e-mail newsletter you belong to - you know, the one you haven't read in 2 years - or do a quick search of what message boards are out there. You may be reminded of and surprised at how useful these seemingly out-of-date services can be.
Some you've probably heard of, but may not know the full power of...
LinkedIn has become the platform for business-focused social networking. By setting up a LinkedIn profile, users are able to post their work history and professional profiles for others to see. This tool presents opportunities for generating new business, reconnecting with old colleagues, and finding a job.
While many business users may have a LinkedIn profile, they may overlook the other small business communication tools LinkedIn provides. For example, LinkedIn Groups are a simple way to create an online forum where customers, prospects and industry insiders can exchange ideas. Similar to an e-mail newsletter, the Group allows invited LinkedIn users to interact with one another and for a company to communicate key messages. With some simple work on the front-end to get the group moving, an entrepreneur can then take a back-seat to let the patients run the asylum - while still maintaining his or her position as the group leader.
A wiki (rhymes with tricky) is a website that allows users to edit the content that is posted on the page; the trick to wikis is ensuring the edits are accurate. Wikipedia, for example, is an editable online encyclopedia in which users can edit the content. The reason the information remains accurate is Wikipedia has designated individuals to monitor updates.
From a business perspective, a wiki is a great small business communication tool for companies with geographically distributed offices or teams. Users can post a document or other materials on an internal wiki and allow a group to review and edit the material in one place. Beyond the team collaboration, the wiki also helps with "version control," a problem that occurs when some users do not have the most up-to-date version of a document. Microsoft's SharePoint offers companies the ability to make internal wikis, as well as discussion boards.
Some small business communication tools you may not have heard of...
Yammer is an enterprise microblogging service - think of it as Twitter for internal business communication. The service allows businesses to create their own internal communication channel and limit use to those who have a valid company e-mail address.
Yammer allows users to post questions, share news, ideas and documents, and post status updates to the entire group. This service allows short messages to be sent and for users to filter the messages they receive so they aren't bombarded with information that is not relevant to them. Much like a wiki, Yammer allows distributed companies to communicate in a private community, only in shorter bursts.
Ning lets users create social networks around topics about which they are passionate. Do you love cheese? If so, you can create a cheese lovers community. Do you fear bunnies? Then you can connect with others who share your phobia. With Ning, you create the network that matches your life.
Why should an entrepreneur care about all these different social media initiatives? If your company produces gourmet cheese, that cheese lovers group is a new business goldmine. Are you a psychiatrist just out of med school looking to build a client base? The bunny-phobic network is a breeding ground for potential patients. Whether setting up a targeted social network or joining one already in existence, Ning can connect your business with others that share your unique passions.
What's more, Ning has one of the more quantifiable ROI models of all social media. Ning's premium service allows the administrator to run ads on its network (this service does require a fee, though). Not only could you run your own ads, you could potentially run ads from other members of your community, creating a quantifiable revenue stream from your network.
When it comes to social media initiatives, there is no magic bullet to grow your business. But there is a unique combination that is right for every entrepreneur. By balancing time and resources, and examining the social media habits of its customers and prospects, a business can develop a small business communication strategy that will accelerate growth.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jon Harmer is responsible for driving adoption & innovation for Cbeyond's messaging & collaboration solutions. He led a team to successfully launch the Hosted Microsoft Exchange email application to Cbeyond customers, which outpaced projected initial adoption rates by 50%, & designed a custom software installer set to become Cbeyond's first patented application which enables customers to easily install & configure email clients. Due to these accomplishments, Cbeyond, which offers internet and phone service to small businesses around the country, was nominated for the Microsoft Hosting Solutions Partner of the Year Award in 2009. Jon earned his undergraduate degree at Georgia Tech with a B.S. in Management with a concentration in IT &, in 2006, graduated from Emory University with a MBA in Marketing & Organizational Management.