Social networking: Know where you’re going before you jump in

A colleague come to me recently asking for help getting set up on Facebook. My first question was “how do you plan to use it?”

” I don’t know,”  the colleague replied.  “My boss told us we all need to set up Facebook pages, so that’s what I’m doing.”

That response, I figure, is not uncommon in the flood of businesses into social networking. It’s the hot thing right now and all the social media gurus are saying you need to be on Facebook, Twitter, et. al. to get your brand out there.

I’ve been seeing way too many businesses jumping onto the social network bandwagon with either no plan or with a  “build it and they will come” mentality.  Unfortunately, neither strategy will garner the results you are hoping to expect.

Yes, social networking is big. You should have a presence on it, especially on Facebook and Twitter, where audience growth has been phenomenal over the past few year. But if you’re just there, you’re missing out on a lot of potential.

I compare social networking to standing in Times Square on a busy afternoon. If you just stand there, you will be passed relatively unseen by the mass of people. If a friend or two passes, they’ll stop and say hi, but no one stops and talks unless you take the initiative. Yelling out “hey, you!” may stop a person or two. Performing card tricks may draw a small crowd. Selling ice cream or cold drinks on a hot day will likely attract a large — and profitable — clientele. Listening to your customers and remembering them the next time they drop by will create loyalty.

Social networking operates in the same fashion. There are more than 400 million active users of Facebook worldwide, with more than 35 million page updates every day. Twitter users grew from 6 million to 30 million in just six months last year, and averaged 20 million unique visits daily. That’s a lot of people and, like standing in Times Square, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd if you don’t have a plan.

Social networking offers unique opportunities for your business that you cannot get through other strategies. But to maximize those opportunities, you need to remember a few things:

1. Know why you’re getting into it. You didn’t start your business without a plan, so don’t jump into social networking without knowing where you want to go with it. Should it be to promote your brand? Offer products and services? Build new audiences? Maintain and promote current customer loyalty? Gain feedback from customers to improve service? Develop a written plan with goals before you set up accounts, then follow through.

2. Know who you want to reach: There are millions and millions of people on social networking. You don’t want to reach them all, unless you’re Ashton Kutcher. Set up a plan, target your audience and, above all, get to know your audience one you’re reached them.

3 Consistency is key. Once you’re established, use it regularly. Like blogging, the longer a site sits without fresh postings, the less likely followers and friends are going to pay attention. Social media is more demanding than blogs because of its shorter shelf life and more immediate impact. Keep in mind the average life of a tweet is 5 minutes. If you have something to say, you may need to repeat it, but remember to do so without becoming spammy.

4. It’s social, so listen as well as talk.  This is probably the more forgotten aspect of networking — but also the most important. Your following is based on people who share your interests or are interested in your brand, and they’re likely share some of their interests with you. Don’t be afraid to share your follower’s thoughts, links, etc., with the rest of your network if you believe it is of the greater interest or can help further your brand. Likewise, if followers have complaints or questions, answer them. Dialog builds credibility among your followers, and that’ll make them likely to recommend you to their followers, which builds audience. Companies like Comcast and Best Buy have done a great job building customer relations through Twitter. You can do the same on a smaller level.

5. Don’t assume social networking is just for the young. I was shocked when one of my bosses shrugged off Twitter last year because his 20-something daughter didn’t use it. What he didn’t realize was that in 2009, almost 42 percent of Twitter users were between the ages of 35 and 49, and that demographic was part of the 1,300% increase in Twitter users that year. Likewise, Facebook saw a growth of  270% of users between 35-54. Facebook still skews towards the young, but users over age 55 grew 194% last year and continues to grow. Social networking takes in all demographics, all ages, all social strata. If you have a target audience, you can reach them here.

6. Be patient. The old adage ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ applies to social network strategies as well. There’s a lot of chatter and white noise in the social stratosphere, and it may take a while to establish yourself and build a following. I’m starting on my third year with this blog, but it was only in the last 6 months that I’ve seen a significant increase in the number of readers (and to all my new and recent followers: Thanks for your support!). An old rule of thumb in online media was to give a new product at least 18 months to build audience. I’d figure about as much for a new start-up on social networks as well.

7. Have some fun.  Think of traditional marketing as “Mad Men:” All business, suit-and-tie, formal decorum. Think of social networking as casual Friday: Keep the decorum, but loosen the tie and joke around a bit. Execute your plan, but do it with a wink and a smile. For example, if you have a restaurant and set up Facebook and Twitter accounts, engage your followers and potential customers. Post a poll for your followers’ favorite server (and maybe reward the winner with a prize), have followers choose what the special of the night should be. Tweet out coupons (“Show us this tweet and get a free appetizer with dinner”).  Offer diners space to talk about their dining experience.  Having fun engages your followers, and the more they’re engaged, the more likely they’ll spread the word about you to others.

I’ve been asked many times if this is a fad. I respond that Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and the rest may be fads, but social networking is here to stay. If Facebook or Twitter die off, it will be because they have been replaced by something that is even more exciting and engaging.

You need to be on social networking. But you also need to know where you’re going.