I’m sure you’ve heard about social networking websites. Chances are even better that you’re on a social network yourself, especially as you consider that Facebook alone has 250m active users. Putting that into perspective, if Facebook was a country it would be bigger than the UK, France, Germany and Italy put together, and growing at about one million users per day!
This is a staggering level of growth. The average Facebook user has 120 contacts and 5 billion minutes are spent on the site each day worldwide. That’s a lot of socialising.
So, how can businesses use social networking effectively? In this article, I explore some of the possibilities for leveraging social networks in order to build sales and improve customer relations.
So, what does this mean today?
Obviously social network sites give users the ability to communicate with each other and share information, but they also enable users to find like-minded thinkers. In contrast to traditional communication tools, it’s much easier to expand your network with relevant people, or communities based on mutual interests. These commuities have brought an almost unparalleled amount of power to individuals. It potentially heralds a seismic shift from company to consumer.
The growth of social networks demonstrates that business can no longer rely on the traditional mediums of print, TV and radio. Whether it’s to sell, support or market products, enforcing the company view of the world has become a whole lot harder.
However, its not all bad news. Used correctly social networks can become a real business enabler, helping you to find and identify current and future customers and respond to problems quickly and effectively.
Find your customers
The first thing any business needs to do is research. No doubt you already know, but social networking can be a time sink. Researching using the medium takes real effort, so make sure this effort is concentrated in the right place. Check your demographics and find out if your customers use social networks, and if so which ones? Chances are they are on Facebook, but don't forget LinkedIn, Twitter or FriendFeed. Ask customers what they use.
Don't talk, listen
Once you have found your customers sit back and listen. Social networking is renowned for its real time opinions, use this to your advantage and employ search engines to find people talking about you or your company. Even better take it a step further and listen for your competitors’ names, or search phrases that relate to your products or services.
Depending on the size or type of business you're running there will be a lot of information, often too much. The challenge is to identify the wheat from the chaff and to capture good information in such a way that it benefits your business.
When you do talk, be smart
A person’s online social space is sensitive; respect it by being smart and polite. You wouldn't expect to barge into a normal conversation with blatant advertising, and social networking is no different. Instead, join in the conversation and offer advice that’s practical. Within my business we actively spend time helping customers. We direct people with queries to our own online resources such as our knowledge base and advisory articles.
Realise the potential
Social Networks such as LinkedIn, Twitter and FriendFeed are brilliant for asking questions. The open nature of these communities allows for anyone to ask, view or respond, so the potential for sales is obvious. Once again it’s important to play by the rules. Companies such as Ford and Dell do this incredibly well, building relationships and being proactive. Helping with enquiries boosts the perceptions of your brand, or service.
The key is to remember the connected nature of social networks, recommendations prove to be the best type of sales lead and social networks can act like a mega phone for both praise and condemnation.
Despite the obvious opportunities, many sales professionals I talk to remain very uncertain about social networks. While it’s true that traditional sales methods don't always apply in this brave new world, it’s important to remember the art of a good sales team is to identify and leverage the next competitive advantage. It may feel like it is taking focus away from core sales activity, but social networks allow both a greater insight into a prospect and an alternate method of communication. When I receive a cold call I am instantly put out. However if I am introduced via a common contact I am much more receptive.
It’s important to realise that web-based social networking is not a black art; it’s really about common sense. Often the first hurdles to be overcome can be one’s own preconceived ideas. If your business is still questioning the relevance, let me ask a question: Do you want to be part of, and influence the conversation that’s already occurring about your market place right now, or do you want to be left to one side? If you engage, sales will follow. If you don’t, your competitors will be making the running.
Benjamin Dyer is director of product development for ecommerce & EPOs supplier Actinic