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Posted: December 13, 2009

Five secrets to leveraging social media for less

Minimal investment can make Facebook et al pay off big-time

Karl Ossentjuk

Facebook, Flickr, Twitter -- all the social media talk is enough to make one's head spin.

By now, "social media" is no longer a buzzword, and it isn't a surprise that businesses are using emerging media and social networks to extend their brand, gain sales and build reputation. What's more interesting is the gap that's being created between how large and small companies use social media.

A recent Forrester report shows that 51 percent of global companies with 20,000 employees or more are currently utilizing Web 2.0 tools and technologies. Inversely, only 20 percent of small businesses with six to 99 employees are using such tools. Companies are spending, too. Forrester's research goes on to say that investment in social media marketing will increase from $716 million in 2009 to more than $3 billion by 2014.

My job allows me to meet many small-to-mid-sized business (SMB) owners who often mention that they're a bit intimidated by the "latest and greatest." And considering the current economy, many wonder how they can take advantage of social media without making significant capital investments.

Before I dive into solutions for SMBs, let's first briefly look at two examples of why companies are so eager to engage in social media:

Facebook

Facebook, the social network that allows users to create a mini website about themselves or their company, recently surpassed a major milestone: 250 million users. That's no small number. And yet, if Facebook can maintain this growth, millions more will join over the coming months. Talk about a pool of potential customers!

Twitter

Quick quiz: Which social network grew by nearly 1,700 percent over the past year? The "micro-blogging" site Twitter now sees more unique traffic than LinkedIn, Digg and The New York Times. And it's adding 10 million unique browsers a month.

In 140 characters or less, Twitter users answer a simple question - "What are you doing?" - to update their individual network of "followers." With each update, followers numbering in the tens, hundreds, thousands and even millions (if you're a celebrity) - can stay up-to-date on what's happening in the user's life.

Intrigued? Here are my top tips for how SMBs can begin to engage in social media without breaking the bank or removing staff from mission-critical functions:

• While social media can lead to sales, first focus on starting a dialogue with stakeholders. Use social networks to strengthen trust first, and sales will follow.

• Remember that social media is a two-way street. Don't just post and leave, you have to be prepared to participate in a dialogue.

• Leverage content you already have. Have a press release? Instead of just sending the news to the media, post the news to your Facebook "wall" and "tweet" the headline via Twitter. Create a Flickr account and upload your company's photo and logo, or upload company videos to YouTube and Vimeo. Once you're comfortable with block-and-tackle tactics, you can deploy bigger ideas and create unique social media content.

• Try using social media for customer service. Let it be known that you respond to customer inquiries via Facebook and Twitter. Try posting product guides as slideshows on YouTube (hint, you can find slideshow conversion software online, for free). My company, Comcast, has been recognized for opening up our customer service with social media. So much, in fact, that our director of digital care, Frank Eliason, was recently referred to as "the most famous customer service manager in the U.S." by Business Week.

• You don't always have to hire an outside consultant to handle social media. While this may be necessary for some companies, SMBs can "dabble" before they invest in outside resources. Have an intern? Put ‘em on the case.

With a minimal time investment and a bit of courage, even the most hardened technophobe can better acquaint themselves with social media and take advantage of the opportunities these "many-to-many" networks offer. Get started today, and you might just find yourself ahead of your competition, too.

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Karl Ossentjuk is vice president of Comcast Business Class Services for Comcast Colorado, where he oversees sales and support for local business customers.  From Comcast’s regional headquarters in Denver, Ossentjuk helps small to enterprise-scale businesses align the technologies they need – including high-speed Internet, voice, video and more – to streamline operations, uncover cost efficiencies and drive bottom-line results. Ossentjuk holds a master of business administration from University of California at Berkeley and received his bachelor’s degree from Colorado College.

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Readers Respond

Karl, Nice article. You bring up some interesting points and things to think about as our company begins to embark on social media. Thanks for sharing these. By Neptune Plumbing on 2009 12 26
Karl: Good article, but you left out a huge aspect of social media - there are two axis businesses must consider as they develop a social media strategy; broadcasting and listening. It seems that everyone jumps to the conclusion that you must participate in social media by broadcasting your business information, your domain expertise, and other conversational tactics to win new prospects. While there's no debate that outbound marketing participation is important, there's another axis that can be far more productive in terms of bang-for-the-social-buck. Most businesses spend a lions share of their social media time budget broadcasting; indeed they shout often and loud in an attempt to get noticed. However, if they dialed that effort back a little and spent more time reading [relevant] social media artifacts, they'd realize it provides a call-down list of prospects, PR opportunities and open doors to business development. I'm not talking about surfing and reading blogs and tweets, etc. - I'm suggesting far more sophisticated methods of developing immediate and sustainable awareness of key social media content that leads to bona-fide business transactions. This requires a carefully designed social media dashboard that is customized for a specific business segments and integrated with relevant conversational transactions. It also requires tuning and maintenance not to mention consistent focus on ones market segment. If you invest your time in a social media listening post and use it diligently, you'll naturally develop participation techniques that will far surpass the "broadcast-centric" methodology. As you correctly point out, social media do's and don'ts and the massive topology of social networking services, tools, and applications is enough to overwhelm even the best GTD advocates. Businesses (large and small) need to streamline the social media process and develop strategic methodologies that are sustainable and profit-minded. By Bill French on 2009 12 14

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