Thursday, October 16, 2008

How Does Social Networking Fit Into Your Marketing Plan?

In meeting with new clients over the last few weeks, I have been listening to a lot of small businesses who are, in a nutshell, frustrated. They want more customers, of course. Many clients are intrigued by the "bells and whistles" that new media and social networking provide, even though they really don't understand them. They may want to switch from a print newsletter to an online version, but they don't really know why. They really want to have a blog, but they are not sure what purpose it will serve.  They like all the little widgets they see, and they want them, even though they may not get their purpose.  They may be ready to move forward with the tools (newsletter, blogs, etc.) without having a marketing plan, or without knowing the difference. They may see a slick video somewhere and decide they want one for themselves, but then have no idea what to do with it. 

So what is the difference between marketing and communications? For one thing, a plan is just that - a blueprint for action, that focuses on a key theme or goal. The communications are the tools that can help get you there. They are not just eye candy.  For example, if your marketing plan is to get 1o new customers a month through new media, you will then use the communications tools such as blogs and e-news to get there. But they are not an end in themselves. Using these tools without a framework or context, is like planning a special diet and then filling your refrigerator with every kind of food there is. It is not targeted energy, and therefore runs the risk of being misspent energy. 

It's my job to explain these differentiations -  both in limited terms of definitions, and also the larger ramifications of what they mean for a business. And it's true, with the new media being exactly that -- new --there are not necessarily the metrics and data available to confirm the "if you built it, they will come," scenario. There is, however, a common denominator with many aspects of social networking and creating an online community, that I have witnessed both by experiencing it myself, in my business, and with other companies and organizations. Here are the givens I believe to be true:

1. An e-newsletter will definitely give you more mileage than a print newsletter. Why? Because it can be forwarded easily, contains live links that an online newsletter does not, and it can be produced quickly and delivered in a more timely fashion than print. This comes in handy if you have an urgent message that needs to get out right away, or decide that you want to communicate more frequently than your print schedule allows you to. I enjoy Constant Contact as a good e-mail news provider. Also, with so much more time being spent online, you have a much better chance reaching someone through their in box than their mailbox. 

2. A blog definitely improves your brand. There is no substitute for having subscribers who receive your message in their in box 3-4 times a week. A blog gives you a chance to establish your expertise in a specified area, show readers and perspective clients your personality (you're allowed to have a little style and flair!), and allows you to serve as an educational resource. I read recently that those who interact in social networks expect to be educated, and to educate, without selling themselves all the time. It's a different kind of communication. That is why in many of the food newsletters I get, the publisher spends more time writing about the different kinds of tomatoes there are, than trying to directly sell me a tomato. Also, through the comments feature, you can find out what your readers and clients are thinking in a way you might not ordinarily discover. 

3. The social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, etc., are very effective at having "microcommunications" with others, and also at getting the kind of audience you need to promote your activities. I look at them as mini parties you can have online anytime. I had only been on Twitter for about a month when the number of people following me grew from about 10 to nearly 100. I was surprised to see so many people finding me. I learned about a lot of great resources and links through these networks, and by being in a great Twitter group with a lot of web savvy people, I gained insights into many tools of the trade I might not have otherwise learned about. 

So....if you are thinking about taking the next step in your communications, develop a marketing plan if you don't already have one, and take each step one at a time. What do you most want to accomplish, and what tools do you think will get you there. One last thought...don't be afraid to try new things and experiment, but at the same time, give a new tool a try for at least a few months before moving on. Your readers and clients like consistency, and they are looking to you to pave the way. 

Do you have a great case study or example of  how blogs and e-newsletters helped your business? Let me know!

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