Online Business and Social Networking

Would you agree that the connections you and your business make are important? So how do you network and how effective is your networking?

Of course the traditional way of meeting new network contacts and building networking relationships has been attendance at meetings, events and conferences. However, today there are many more options including online business and social networking. At Exponential, we use a mix of online networking tools which includes our Exponential Blog, our company Facebook , Twitter and LinkedIn profile as well as FlickrYouTube and Google+ accounts. The focus of Exponential’s online social networking is to build long-term relationships with customers and clients, potential partners and associates, and stakeholders. As Exponential’s Business Development Manager, one of my roles to manage the organisation’s social media strategy. What started as just updating a few pages on a ‘shop window’ style website has evolved into a key role, which requires considerable time, energy and resources. My aim in this blog is to explore how you can use the social media to make new connections and to gain commercial advantage by making use of online business and social networking. I will try to give you an insight into how you can create your own social networking strategy and how to choose the right social media platforms for you and your organisation.

Selecting the right social media platforms

One aim of most organisations is to stand out from your competitors and how you use social networks is one way of differentiating your organisation. This means going beyond your organisation’s website by using networks to engage with your customers, to raise awareness and to build your reputation as a trusted supplier, contact or business. Social networks can also present you and your organisation with new opportunities to gain new contacts in a timely and efficient manner without physically meeting the people with whom you are networking.

How do organisations use social networking?

Social networking can be used to improve performance and an organisation’s effectiveness in several different ways including marketing; recruitment, customer engagement and interaction; market research; brand building; finding new partners and new markets. The use of social networking and social media is not about doing something new, it is about using the right tools to help you communicate your organisation's message. Used well, it can help you create brand loyalty, connect with your customers, research markets and create new opportunities. One of the LinkedIn groups I manage is the High Growth Coach Development. This group has grown to over 700 members and now provides me with rich market data and insights into the needs of business growth coaches. It also connects me with coaches all over the world.

How do you choose which social media platform to use?

There are now so many social media tools available that choosing the right ones for you and your organisation can be confusing. When choosing which social media platform to use, it is important to understand where your customers (prospects or potential contacts and partners) are. You should target your efforts towards the channels they use rather than focusing on the channels you like or already use.

One specialist-networking tool that I use is findcourses.co.uk. This is a specialist professional development directory dedicated to corporate training and further education: its goal is to help individuals and companies find relevant training courses for Professional Development in the UK and overseas. Whilst in some cases, you might find a platform or tool that reflects the interests of your target audience and which they already use, it is more likely that you will need to use a combination of social media channels to cover all your needs. This why I spend time and resources linking several social networking tools which gives (excuse the pun) 'exponential' impact and benefits. For instance, if you look at one of our courses on findcourses.co.uk such as the Diploma in Professional Consulting you will see the links back to our website and it also incorporates YouTube videos as well as links to our other social media networks. Part of building an effective strategy is linking and blending different tools which once set up saves time and generates ‘exponential’ benefits.

So what are some of your choices?

Choice 1: Blogs

Blogging involves posting regular stories, pieces of commentary or other content to a website, which can be accessed and read by customers and other industry professionals. The best blogs are interactive and allow followers to leave comments and message each other. By creating thought-provoking posts on industry issues, you can build a reputation as an authority in the field, stimulate discussion and strengthen your relationship with followers. Blogging also provides another route for potential customers to find you if they are not aware of your website.

Choice 2: Online PR

Online PR may include engaging with or responding to blogs that are not your own, with the intent of marketing or advertising your product or service. You will need to pay attention when choosing the blog you wish to engage so that you have the right target audience.

Choice 3: Social networks

Social network services are online platforms, which allow people to create a profile representing themselves, and connect with others to broadcast information, stay in touch, send messages and recommend one another. Social network channels allow you to build a community of engaged customers who will spread your news and information for you. They can also help you get answers to business questions and find new suppliers. Having a presence on a social networking channel can keep you on your industry map with relatively little time and effort.

Choice 4: Internet forums

Internet forums or message boards, provide opportunities for you to ask and answer questions and to hold discussions by posting and replying to messages. Participating in industry and consumer forums to share your expertise and give constructive advice can boost your reputation. Though many of the sites are similar in nature, they can all be categorised by the different purposes they serve. These are the basic types of social networking sites:

Type 1: 'Free for all' social sites:

Some sites that fall under this category are Facebook, MySpace, and Ning. Each of these sites primarily serve as a nexus of friends and associates who want to socialise. Ning, for example, has become popular for connecting classmates and helping to set up reunions. The profiles are usually personable, inviting, and can be customised with add-ons and apps.

Type 2:  Professional sites:

Examples of these include LinkedInFastPitch, and Plaxo. The professional site can be utilised as an online professional contact database, or 'rolodex,' but it's also where people go to update employment information about themselves. 

Type 3:  Industry-specific sites: 

These sites allow you to connect to people who are in your industry. I-Meet, for example, is specifically geared toward event planners, while ResearchGATE is a community for researchers in the science or technology field. Industry sites help you to narrow your search when looking for services, or people with skills in certain fields. You may even want a particular department of your company, such as IT or advertising, to open an account on one of these sites.

So, what is your social media strategy?

Before opening any online networking account and becoming active, you need to find out what each site offers and how you can benefit from its resources and features. You need to decide which tools are best for your target contacts. Without a fully developed plan for your social networking activity, you could end up meandering throughout the sites and you will waste a lot of time. Here are a few basic questions to ask yourself when forming your social networking strategy:

Question 1: What are your needs or the needs of your organisation?

You need to avoid simply putting your details or your organisation’s name on a social networking account just to send messages back and forth to former school or university classmates, colleagues and existing contacts. You need to decide what personal or organisational need you are trying to address (e.g. Are you short-staffed? Is it to increase public relations activities? Is it to meet new strategic partners?)

Question 2: Why are you using the site?

After you have established your needs, consider the primary goal of your social networking strategy. Do you want to recruit employees for a certain department? Do you want to market a new line of products? Do you want to connect to more people in your industry? All of your activity should all be aligned to this goal. Following feedback from Exponential followers, I have just introduced a new style of posting in our e-newsletter, 'In the Loop' making use of short video coaching sessions using the video social media tool Vimeo. Keeping abreast of social media trends and new tools can be demanding, but occasionally offer significant benefits – Coaching Works has been our most visited blog post in the last three editions of 'In the Loop'!

Question 3: Whose attention and interest are you trying to get? 

Okay, so you now you know your goal, the next decision is to determine who you need to engage. You need identify and ‘know’ your target audience for your product or message otherwise your activity will remain random and a ‘hit and miss’ affair. Just consider this, Facebook has more than 300 million users – unless you narrow your focus the chances of engaging the right network contacts is low. Having started to define the purpose of your social networking, now you can begin to build your strategy. It is now time to consider these additional questions.

Question 4: Which sites do you want to take on?

If you have enough time or manpower resources to handle multiple social networking sites, that is great. If not, it's important to focus on just one or two sites, or you could spread yourself too thin and fall victim to the 'gaping void' perception, where you end up going days without activity: any followers you do engage will quickly notice and become disengaged. You need to follow through with regular, relevant and routine up-dates, messages and postings. If you look at the Exponential Blog, you will see there are 3 – 5 postings every month. To make it easier for visitors, I have integrated a ‘tag cloud’ and several different ways of searching on postings including categories, month, most popular and latest postings. If you are reading this blog, the chances are you received my e-newsletter 'In the Loop' which goes out to our 12,000 subscriber list once a month without fail!

Question 5: Who is going to manage your page(s)? 

If it is you, have you scheduled time in your diary to work on your pages? If it is someone else, do they understand what you are trying to achieve? At Exponential, we have guest bloggers and a team that drafts articles, content and stories, BUT they are all moderated by one person (yes you guessed – its me) which ensures control over the use and building of the Exponential brand. Managing the brand, whether it is your personal brand or your organisation’s is an important part of online networking.

Question 6: Who has access to my page? 

Will all of your colleagues, team members and people you know have access to the social network account, or a select few? Take some time to assess the skills and character of those who can log into your page and make postings, or you may run into ‘difficult’ situations down the road – especially when dealing with former workers or disgruntled customers.

Question 7: Who is going to be the personality of my page? 

If this is an organisational networking strategy, does your organisation already have a public representative that usually handles speeches, press, and other PR? It may be beneficial to involve that person as the voice of your social networking site. If various people will be able to post and upload entries and content, how will you ensure consistency and that the content is relevant and supportive (style, topics and look) thereby reflecting the ‘personality’ of the page?

Question 8: What next?

I am not an expert when it comes to social networking.  I have tried to just introduce you to some of the tools that I have found work for me. If this is some thing you believe you need to learn more about, get yourself along to a networking event OR better still find out about online networking opportunities and see how it works for you as a follower first!

"Social media can play a really powerful role in your business, as it’s your opportunity to engage."

Jacqueline Biggs

Happy networking!

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About the Author

James Dillon is Business Development Manager at Exponential Training and has over 5 years experience working with current and aspiring Managers, Coaches and Consultants. James works with both past and potential clients in order to help them find the right training & development solutions to meet their specific needs. You can contact James or connect through LinkedIn.

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