Is Social Media Passing Your Business By?

Courtesy of jbhill via Flickr Social media - everything from Facebook to Digg to Twitter to Flickr - has been quickly snagging the attention of small business owners and employees of big companies across the world. The business applications for these tools are being explored and many are finding success.

But is this all hype? Are businesses really adopting these tools and, if so, why do they succeed (or fail)?

In this post, I will give you proof that the use of social media in business is expanding rapidly, illustrate what social media offers your customers, and give you some questions so you can determine whether it's the right strategy for your company.

Social Media: What's The Big Deal?

Some businesspeople scoff that social media is a passing fad. Thanks to a recent study from The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research, we have proof that it's not. Social media is becoming more familiar - and more applicable to business - to a much wider audience. From the social media in the Inc. 500 study:

"Just over one quarter of the Inc. 500 reported social media was very important to their business/marketing strategy in 2007. That number has increased to 44% just one year later."

So why the sudden and dramatic increase? I contend that businesses figured out where their customers were congregating online and are learning a new way to communicate with current and potential customers.

Go Where Your Fans Are

In David Meerman Scott's e-book, The New Rules of Viral Marketing, he tells a story about a business finding its customers online and communicating directly with them (which also turns out to be cheaper and more efficient).

Cindy Gordan, VP of New Media and Marketing Partnerships with Universal Orlando, was tasked with promoting a new Harry Potter theme park. She told only seven people, but those seven people reached 350 million potential customers through social media.

What I find interesting is Gordan's insistence that she was compelled to use the social media channels and websites where those Harry Potter fans gathered and shared news.

"'If we hadn't gone to the fans first, there could have been a backlash,' Gordan says. She imagined the disappointment dedicated Harry Potter fans might feel if they learned about Universal Orlando's plans in, say, The New York Times rather than an insider fan site."

Customers expect you to meet them where they are. In overwhelming and still increasing numbers, they are online and frequently reading blogs, checking in with friends on MySpace or Facebook, and sharing what they find online with their friends.

Sure, customers are online, but must businesses join them?

Talking The Talk

If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you know that I'm a big believer that businesses must communicate more personally with their customers (note that communication is a two-way street). They don't want you interrupting them with marketese, but they are willing to have a chat if your product is good and you are polite.

A recent AdWeek article details this shift in conversation and explains who in business can bring about this change.

"Once thought of as an interesting new media channel, social media is increasingly seen as a catalyst for changing how companies operate. It points to a new corporate structure that favors open over closed, dialogue over monologue, and decentralized power over command and control."

Some people think this new way of doing things is bogus. But as General Eric Shinseki said, "If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less."

The AdWeek story gives examples of businesses getting wise to the change though, including Ford, Pepsi, and Intel. The article seems to advocate, as Joseph Jaffe and I have in the past, the idea of a Chief Conversation Officer. It may seem "out there" now, but don't say I didn't warn you.

On The Other Hand...

I am a true believer in social media for business, but take a long look at your business before jumping in headlong. Focus on strategy rather than cool technology. Consider whether you have the infrastructure to support a social media campaign. Re-read posts on this blog for help with this.

Like Seth Godin says, if your business is selling meatballs, don't slop ice cream on top. In other words, not all businesses need a social media campaign. Don't expect to see ball bearing manufacturers on Twitter - their customers aren't there and it doesn't fit their business model or strategy.

It's true that not every company needs to have a Facebook group or share photos over Flickr. But every business needs to be listening. 99% of businesses' customers are online and many of them are talking about your product. You need to be attuned to what they are saying. Not only can it stave off crises, but researching your audience can only improve your actual product.

Your customers are talking about you. Don't let the benefits of social media pass you by.

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