The 2012 Social Media Landscape

If you’re promoting your business online, you’ve probably at least dipped your toe into the vast, muddy lake of social media. Some of you may have seen success with it, while others got wind of the time and effort required to maintain a social media presence and gingerly stepped away. Since most of you deal primarily with business-to-business relationships, you may not think you’re missing much—social media often seems best suited for consumer-oriented brands, politicians and Hollywood stars.

Those of you in the “this is a bunch of worthless noise” camp might want to reconsider your position for in 2012. Two factors are making social media a critical component of doing business online. First, social media is becoming a popular venue for marketing all kinds of businesses — a place where customers expect to find current information and updates about your business. Remember when you thought you probably didn’t need a website? Well, this is becoming more like that.

Second, the tools to manage and automate social media are now mature and easy to use, so even a busy, harried small business owner can queue up a slew of updates once a month and let them rip. As a bonus, social media activity and updates can improve your search engine ranking over time – if you do it right (more on that later). And finally, of course, don’t forget that more and more of your competitors are joining in every day. That doesn’t mean you have to play catch up with everything they do, but it’s worth understanding the landscape.

What’s Out There

There are four social media platforms that matter for businesses: Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn. (The last one would likely bristle at being called “social media” but we’ll toss it in with the others to keep things simple.) These networks are active, have large subscriber/user bases, and have become the standard venues for promoting businesses to engaged online customers. You should become familiar with all of them, and participate in at least a few. Let’s look at them in order.

Facebook: The largest social network in the world, and a surprisingly popular venue for businesses. I say “surprisingly” because while many of us assumed that Facebook would be popular for consumer brands like soft drinks and TV networks, it’s become a hot venue for businesses of all kinds. The reason is simple: everyone is there. Hundreds of millions of people spend far too many hours of their lives on the site. It’s become, for better or worse, almost like an alternate version of the web, and millions of users see updates from companies and brands they like in their News Feed every day. True, not everyone is going subscribe to updates from business like yours. But some will, and you should be in front of them

Twitter: If Facebook is like an alternate version of the web, Twitter is an abbreviated, real-time distillation of what’s happening online. Like Facebook, Twitter has expanded from purely personal use to consumer brands and far beyond. While both Facebook and Twitter offer advertising programs, the key with both services is simply participating as a business: hanging up your sign and telling people what’s going on on a regalar basis. Not sure what to tell them? We’ll talk about that in a sec.

Google Plus: I’ve discussed this new social network recently, noting that it’s essentially a clone of Facebook. Since then, Google has added even more Facebook-like features including games and pages for businesses. It’s still unclear whether Google Plus has the momentum to unseat Facebook as the king of social networking (I’m guessing it won’t) but with over 40 million registered users, it’s worth the small amount of effort required to build and maintain a page for your business on this network. [Note: Given recent changes to Google+ noted here, it's rapidly becoming mandatory for serious online marketers to maintain a presence on the social network. See this post for more info.]

LinkedIn: Not truly a social network like the others, LinkedIn has nevertheless added social sharing and posting features and remains a great place to stay in touch with other professionals. It’s also done an exceptional job of organizing and classsifying businesses and professionals, so listing your business on LinkedIn is a no-cost way to get your name in one of the biggest real business directories on the planet. Don’t expect a mad rush of new clients from LinkedIn, but you should be there when folks are looking.

What to Say

What should a business owner post on social networks? Simple stuff, really: Specials, announcements, promotions, information, events, tips and anything else you think might be useful to your customers. Is summer fast approaching? Post some ideas for new and innovative summer products. Give them tips on ordering in time for big events. Let them know when your next open house is.

The very same things you promote in emails, phone calls and  regular business conversations can be promoted via social media updates. In fact, the more you consider social media to be a conversation between you and your customers (and prospects), the better you’ll understand what it’s all about. True, that conversation will often be one-sided, but you want to facilitate a dialog. Your customers may not reply directly; instead, many engage passively, scanning for the things that interest them. But like any other form of advertising or marketing, having your name in front of them as much as possible is the key to getting their attention when it matters. Given that every one of these networks costs nary a dime to participate in at the basic level, why would you not want to hang your shingle out there?

How to Say It

Of course, you don’t want to spend your entire day posting to social networks, and very few of you are prepared to hire a full-time social media manager. That’s where the tools come in. A couple of years ago, some very smart people realized that keeping many different social networks updated was a tremendous hassle for normal people. These smart people built software and websites to automate the posting of updates across all your social media profiles, and you can thank them for your future sanity.

Social media toolkits typically do two very important things: First, they manage all your profiles at once, eliminating the need to visit each site. Your updates go out to all sites at once, and all your customers’ and associates’ updates are consolidated into a single window. Second, these tools allow you to schedule updates to go out automatically, on a schedule you create.

If you can sit down for an hour or two every month and build a couple of marketing emails or flyers, it shouldn’t be too much trouble to add social media updates to your marketing schedule. Just create your updates, give them a date and time, and let them roll. There are quite a few of these packages out there, but my pick is Hootsuite, which not only handles all your scheduled updates, but can even post automated updates whenever you create content on your blog. It’s free for the basic version, five bucks a month for the advanced version, and quite a bargain either way.

– Brent Buford

A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.

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First Impressions: Test Driving Google+

Google+ Social NetworkIf you’ve explored social networking with Twitter and Facebook, there’s a chance you might have noticed the “field trial” launch of Google’s next social networking product, Google+, last week. I say “next” because Google has thrown a number of social products at the wall over the last decade (Orkut, Wave, Buzz) and none of them have turned out to be very sticky. Google+ may change that. I’ve been using it for about a week, and it’s an interesting hybrid of Twitter and Facebook that could give both of them a run for their money.

Before we explore Google+, a little background. Google has been losing engineers and executives to Facebook for a couple of years – Facebook has largely supplanted Google as the “hot” internet company, and Google has been unsuccessful in building any kind of social functionality into their products, much less in creating a social networking platform out of whole cloth. But Google has something now that they’ve never had before: big-time market share in something other than search. For years, Google has tried to bolt social features (and many other things) into their search product, but most users want search to stay simple and straightforward.

But then came Android. Google’s smartphone platform has taken the mobile world by storm, grabbing up market share quickly through a savvy combination of giving the operating system away for free and allowing carriers and manufacturers to customize it to their liking. Android represents an unprecedented opportunity for Google to “bake” their tools and software into a phone, thus capturing yet more eyeballs for their real core business: selling advertising.

Where does Google+ fit into this? I think it’s do or die: Google can’t afford to have tens of millions of smartphone user eyeballs sucked into competing social network platforms. Facebook is, at heart, a massive photo-sharing network (the largest one in the world, actually). Smartphones are rapidly becoming the primary method of taking pictures; the image quality is fabulous, and it’s a camera that you always have with you. Is the social networking battle really as prosaic and simple as photo sharing? Of course not. But don’t underestimate its importance. If you want confirmation, look no further than Google’s recent decision to roll its own photo sharing service, Picasa, into Google+ itself.

Google’s biggest problem, and consequently its primary threat, is that with the unfettered proliferation of junk web content, search and advertising may soon be effectively restricted to “trusted” sources – that is, you’ll be more likely to seek out things via the people you know rather than using a general-purpose search engine. Facebook is growing like a weed, and their advertising platform boasts a level of personal targeting unavailable in Google’s products; forget about keywords and geotargeting – Facebook knows what your friends like. That’s powerful stuff, and Google doesn’t just want a piece of it; they view it as a threat to their very existence.

Inside Google+

So, perhaps the strangest trait of Google+ is its current lack of any kind of advertising. It’s a smart, though transparent, tactic – encourage early adopters and influencers to join during one of Google’s trademark (sometimes years-long) “beta” phases and then blend in the advertising model later. Like Wave a few years back, any new Google product announcement causes the entire tech community to salivate like hungry dogs, scrounging for precious invites. With Wave and Buzz, the hype was met with a resounding “huh?” once users got access. I don’t think that’s going to be the case with Google+.

First of all, Google has just recently gotten the User Experience religion, which you can see in the new version of Gmail’s interface and improvements to their SERP (search engine results page). Google+ actually looks like UX designers had a hand in it, rather than just engineers. In fact, it’s less visually cluttered than Facebook itself, which seems to be in a constant battle between feature cramming and interface cleanup.

Second, Google+ offers an interesting (and possibly superior) alternative to  Facebook’s “friending” – a system called Circles. Circles are easy to organize visually and, perhaps more importantly, don’t require the same type of explicit approval, notification and reciprocation that Facebook requires. Facebook accomplishes this by bifurcating relationships into “Friends” and “Fans” (the latter primarily for celebrities, businesses and organizations); you can become a fan of something without any kind of reciprocal approval. It’s vastly superior to a business having to approve thousands of friend requests, but it makes the “fan” type of interaction much less personal.

Circles allow you to manage both personal and “fan” relationship seamlessly and mix them together however you like (it may, in fact, offer too much freedom and control for the average user). You can draw the lines wherever you want, and while the party you friend or follow might reciprocate, they never have to in order for the whole thing to work. In that sense, Google+ is an interesting hybrid of Twitter and Facebook, and Google has clearly learned from Facebook’s own missteps trying to craft a “real-time” status feed as Twitter’s popularity began to soar. Where Facebook has bolted on, Google has re-thought from the ground up, and it shows in the simple management of relationships and status.

That’s not to say that Google+ is anything revolutionary. If you were color-blind, you might have a tough time distinguishing between the two at first glance (Facebook’s trademark blue has been toned down to neutral blacks and grays on Google+). Let’s not mince words: Google+ is a blatant attempt to rip off the best of Facebook and Twitter and create a competing social network platform. It is, at best, an incremental improvement over existing technology. It will initially appeal to early adopters, Facebook haters and über-nerds like me who have to have their hands on every new bell and whistle that comes out.

I haven’t mentioned a few other marquee features of Google+, because I don’t think they’ll make much difference in the social network arms race. “Hangouts” are video chat rooms, and Sparks are topic-specific news feeds (like RSS). Neither of these are compelling reasons to pick one social network over another. In fact, constantly slapping new features and tools into social networks can backfire – witness the continued appeal of Twitter, with its restrictive format. Both Google+ and Facebook could learn a lesson from Twitter and offer better compression or summarization of feeds; my primary complaint about Google+ is that a single status update, with an article excerpt, link or video, often takes up an entire screen. It certainly doesn’t encourage the quick, cursory skimming that Twitter excels at.

The Mobile Gorilla in the Room

But all of this may be academic. Google will be successful with Google+, and not because of nerds, early adopters or tech writers like me. Google+ will be baked into Android handsets (the Android app is already available) and Google will put every ounce of its muscle into adoption on the mobile side. I expect Google’s nascent local deals business and Places to all flow through Google+ shortly. Consider all the first-time Android phone buyers out there (and there are millions and millions of them): if Google can provide the right combination of incentives and simplicity to push even half those users into Google+ for something as simple as photo sharing from their smart phone, they’ll build market share faster than you can spell “Zuckerberg”.

Is Facebook scared? Should they be? Maybe. Facebook has built an unbelievably large, loyal user base and has shown over and over that even egregious missteps fail to generate any substantial abandonment of the service. Ultimately, the two companies are coming at revenue from opposite ends: Facebook has built market share with your relationships and is only recently beginning to monetize it; Google has been monetizing content for years and now wants in on your relationships. I don’t think Google+ will result in a massive exodus from Facebook, but if it steals advertising dollars, that may be all Google needs to call it a success.

Hiring Social Media Experts

In case you haven’t noticed, everyone that was a search engine expert a few months ago and a “Web 2.0” expert a year or two ago is now a “social media” expert. The transition has occurred so rapidly that the biggest beneficiaries are the business card printers and web designers who have to crank out new brands and identities for the scores of self-styled social media consultants minted every day.

What constitutes a “social media” expert these days? In most cases, not a whole heck of a lot. Most social media gurus are simply folks who are a few steps ahead of the technology curve and got on Twitter and Facebook long before you did. They realize – as does CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS and pretty much the rest of the world at this point – that web-based social networks are ubiquitous and free. Whether or not social media offers any tangible benefit to your particular enterprise is often beside the point to these people – they want you promoting your business there, because, well, they’re promoting their business there, so it must be the right thing to do.

But, as I’ve discussed before, the benefits of social networking and media like Facebook and Twitter are minor for many businesses. That often doesn’t matter to social media experts, who tend to assume that you “must” participate in every possible venue in order to fully promote your business. What they won’t tell you is when that might actually be a waste of your time.

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