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The tools being trumpeted as paving the new road to riches—Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogging—depend on fundamentals common to most good business plans: People buy things from companies they like, trust, remember or that provide them with value. All this is happening in a new way as social media transforms how people make connections and do business. “We can be more intimate with our marketplace, customers and peers,” explains Mari Smith, president of the International Social Media Association. “Consumers are developing the expectation that companies are going to be more available and respond more quickly, that people are listening.”
But social media comprises just one piece of an overall marketing pie, say practitioners, who stress that it must be planned and executed well to be successful.
If Facebook were a country it would be the world's fourth most populous, between the United States and Indonesia.
With social media now part of the mainstream, many businesspeople feel peer and media pressure to dive in—especially with Twitter, which is essentially a global chat room of influencers—without knowing why or what they’re doing there.
“You have to know what your objective is,” Smith says. “A lot of people come to me and ask how they can make money on Facebook or Twitter. They are looking at it as sort of an ATM. But these are mediums, platforms or vehicles we can use to get our message out there, not a whole lot different than using traditional tools—buying an ad in a magazine or on TV, and radio spots, public speaking or press releases.”
Getting started with social media means getting educated, which can begin with a simple Internet search. “The online community has all the answers; all you have to do is type in the question, and the answer is there,” says Gary Vaynerchuk, who used social media to build his family’s retail wine business and promote his own video blog called Wine Library TV.
An entrepreneur or small-business owner can also learn a great deal studying how corporate trendsetters—Kodak, Dell Computers, Ford Motor Company and Starbucks, for example—use blogs, Facebook fan pages, Twitter and YouTube to promote their companies. (Kodak also offers a useful Social Media Tips guide in PDF at blogs.Kodak.com.)
Hiring a coach or expert in the field is another possible approach, but doing due diligence is essential (a glut of candidates is clamoring to help—a recent Google search of social media experts offered 92.4 million hits).
Smith advises any businessperson just getting started with social media to get out there on Google Search or sign up for TweetBeep alerts, and listen to the conversations going on about the company or the company’s specific market. Doing so can help gauge how people feel about your products, company and competitors.
Vaynerchuk suggests going to different forums and blogs, using Twitter and Facebook, searching keywords related to your business, then engaging in virtual handshakes and leaving comments. He shares an example of his own experience: “I videotaped the Wine Library TV show for 20 minutes, put it up on the WordPress blogging site, and spent the next 18 hours going to every wine forum and blog and leaving comments about everybody else’s comments. Essentially, I went to the places where other bloggers were blogging and started conversing. They became my initial fan base. That was it. It was not overly complicated. It’s about putting out content that’s relevant and good, then spending all the time possible in different places where your subject matter is discussed and becoming part of those communities.”
Experts agree that success with social media requires a commitment. “Understand that once you write the blog post or leave a comment on a wall, that’s when your work begins, not when it ends,” says Vaynerchuk, who estimates it takes six to 24 months of using social media before seeing results.
In addition to the time commitment, Smith stresses the importance of posting consistently and offering relevant content. “In a really beautiful way, it’s about leadership: When you have people following you, whether that’s hundreds or hundreds of thousands or a million, you have a great responsibility to provide them with quality content and lead them with integrity.”
Jeffrey Hayzlett, Kodak chief marketing officer and vice president, says using social media needs to be a core part of what and who you are. “Don’t just step into it with a splash and fade away—step into it, own it and continue to do it,” he says.
Experts offer these additional tips to effectively using social media:
“Passion always beats skill. Realize that it’s the passion in your subject matter that will engage,” Vaynerchuk says.
“It’s hard to convey passion in 140 characters on Twitter,” Hayzlett says, “but if you are consistent, people begin to see that you are deep, not shallow. That’s what small businesses have to do as well.”
“Authenticity and transparency are critical in social media,” Smith says. For example, she says the robust culture that successful online entrepreneur Tony Hsieh has developed at Zappos.com includes the following Twitter training message for employees, who each have their own Twitter accounts: Be authentic and use your best judgment.
Forget the old hard sales pitch.
“Nobody on the Web wants to hear it, and people will tune you out,” Vaynerchuk says. “Listen; don’t pitch. If you’re selling flowers and are chatting about them to a potential client, instead of saying, ‘Hey, buy my flowers,’ listen to one of those looking for advice about a specific flower and help her out. Your knowledge and honesty is what will give you an audience.”
“People just want you to communicate with them. They’re not necessarily obsessed with grammar or sentence structure,” Vaynerchuk says.
Always be marketing.
“Every single thing I do markets myself, whether I’m chitchatting with a friend or working with a client,” Smith says. “Oprah could be reading my tweets and trying to decide whether to have me on her show right now. I’m always cognizant of that.”
As with any tool, social media needs to be studied, evaluated and put to use as part of a broader business plan. But veterans say the time for developing that process is now.