24/08/2011 twiter and facebook Gauteng. (110) Photo: Leon Nicholas

A few years back, who could have predicted that adult conversation would be laced with words such as Twitter, Facebook, Ning, Plurk, Friendster, Myspace, hi5 and Tagged, Digg, StumbleUpon, Flickr, Epinions, BizRate, Behance and Goodreads?

Social media is the new buzzword for social life and commerce of all varieties these days. Big and small businesses are seeing the power of reaching out virally through social networking platforms.

Consumers, especially those in the Generation X and Y demographic, are seeking advice and information from these resources before deciding on their purchases.

From the social media comes social networking, which is transforming word-of-mouth communication between consumers. It comes in many varieties: online banner advertising, viral marketing, interactive websites, blogs, podcasts and the list goes on. But no matter the tactic, the purpose is the same: turning potential customers into enthusiasts and buyers.

At the heart of social networking is a desire to interact with people you know or who are introduced to you by people you know, rather than to interact with the anonymous general population of Net users. The main value of social networking sites to their users is to create and sustain interactions with broad networks of people on a range of topics while building the trustworthiness of those networks.

In practice, most people create and participate in networks of people who they actually know, and the social networking platforms provide an easy way to share and exchange information, photos, gossip and all kinds of data at any time from any place.

This may be just for fun, but it can be also be for constructive purposes such as teamwork and collaborative activities. Social networking sites are perceived as informal and fun. While it is true that one does not necessarily know the actual identity of the participants in many of the large networks, over time one can develop a sense of their authenticity and trustworthiness based on the pattern of their interactions and contributions.

What do you want?

A business must first determine what it wants to achieve from social media: is it increased sales? Is it better customer interaction? Is it tailored marketing?

It needs to be clear about who it is trying to reach: is it customers or other businesses in niche markets? Each social medium, whether Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, has very different demographic profiles.

Some say if the primary aim of a business is to connect with other groups in the sector, often known as business-to-business (B2B), a good place to begin would be to set up a professional profile on LinkedIn, often referred to as the business equivalent of Facebook. The purpose of LinkedIn is to allow registered users to maintain a list of contact details of people they know and trust in business.

There are other narrower niche sites offering social media tools that are specific to particular sectors of industry or interest groups such as Behance for graphic designers and GoodReads for books.

If a company is looking for a platform for business-to-consumer marketing, research gives Facebook the edge; its format allows for the inclusion of photographs, multiple outbound links, videos, surveys, promotions, direct engagement and other business-to-consumer applications.

Indeed, while some are widely known, others aren’t. The social bookmarking sites of Digg and StumbleUpon, sharing sites like Flickr and YouTube and sites that publish reviews and ratings such as Epinions and BizRate are also in the frame. Some sites have a more specific role such as Digital Photography Review, news aggregators (RSS, Google Reader) and three-dimensional networks (Second Life, Active-Worlds).

If you get your company’s name out to many people in a variety of ways, it will spread faster and wider than ever before.

This is where viral marketing comes in, but it’s not just a matter of making video adverts that wouldn’t normally get past the advertising standards authorities and hoping bored teenagers and office workers will pass them on to their mates. It’s a question of getting people talking about your product or service in a positive way.

If you sell insurance, for example, there will be people blogging about their experience with your company, discussing it in chat rooms, or posting about it on review sites. You may choose not to get involved in those chats, but you should at least make sure you know what’s being said in them.

But there is nowhere to hide online. So make sure that every experience the customer has with your company is a good one. And we all know that bad news travels further and faster than good news does.

Dos and don’ts

Unfortunately, blogs and social media networks can be double-edged swords. On the one hand, they are powerful communications tools with extraordinary reach. While all seems fun in the world of online social networking, there are several concerns among users regarding identity and the potential for predatory behaviour against minors and other vulnerable people.

Also, it is easy for people to misrepresent their age, gender and location to form links for illegal or immoral purposes. Other concerns include accidental disclosure of sensitive information and the fact that data on social networking sites can fall into strangers’ hands for unknown purposes.

You also never know where those embarrassing photos of your business posted by your friends will be used.

Don’t let social media dominate your marketing. As great as the internet is, people still need to feel a connection with your company. Get away from your computer regularly and work on strengthening individual relationships. Don’t forget that people want to do business with people.

Also, using networking sites requires discipline. And for those who prefer face-to-face contact, it can seem a bit impersonal. Then there’s the puzzle of keeping your business life separate from your personal life. Don’t post anything that you wouldn’t want your parents, future employer or potential client to see.

Monitoring online chatter is a great way of alerting a business to potential problems. People might complain about a particular product, or you might notice a lot of complaints coming from a particular area.

Of course monitoring is only half the battle. A negative post needs an appropriate response. Companies must be prompt; consider responding offline; if it’s factually incorrect, correct it quickly, and always be courteous. If you control the problem publicly on the blog where the original complaint was posted you can create an advocate out of the person who posted the blog, as well as other people who visit the site.

The next few years will be a steep learning curve for many brand makers as they come to terms with the fact that online, they don’t own the brand – consumers do.

By engaging with online communities instead of trying to control them, we can all manage our brands and enhance our reputations in the eyes of millions of potential customers.

Organisations, companies and corporations that have not yet ventured into the world of social media are missing a sizeable business opportunity.

Liza van Wyk is the chief executive of skills and development companies AstroTech and BizTech. www.astrotech.co.za and www.biztech.co.za