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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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