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Twittering your way to success

Social media is the perfect new way to get your products across to customers, but you have to know how to use it, says Kate Hilpern

It’s easy for businesses to be sceptical about social media – corporate blogs have, in the past, been hyped and many remain stale and dull. Meanwhile, the likes of Twitter and Facebook are regularly criticised as passing fads. But as people continue to flock to them (a recent OfCom report found nearly one in four Brits use Facebook for an average of six hours a month, up four hours from this time last year, while Twitter has gone from 0.1m users to 2.6m in the last year) and as most corporate websites are akin to brochures with a library attached, it’s little wonder that social-networking sites are increasingly being seen as the bread-and-butter of customer relations management. Gurus predict that they’ll have superseded corporate websites in terms of influence and power in two years’ time.

“Businesses should be using social media because their customers are all using it,” says Nancy Williams, the MD of the social-media marketing consultancy Tiger Two. “More and more people are going online to converse, be entertained and research purchases. The fact is, conversations are already happening online about their business or product, so they need to be involved with that.”

Because social media is a conversation rather than a broadcast, it’s a hugely effective marketing tool, according to Williams – and what’s more, it’s free. “Most people will respond more positively to a two-way conversation with a brand than to being shouted at with yet another marketing message.”

The result can be your supporters evangelising your brand in their own communities and thus delivering the holy grail of personal endorsement. “Social media also provides brands with the ultimate focus group,” says Gavin Sheppard, development director at the communications charity Media Trust, who believes the rise of social media is taking businesses by surprise just as much as the internet did a decade ago. “Would Marks & Spencer have discovered their tiered pricing of bras by size caused so much resentment in their customer base if a group of consumers hadn’t taken up the cause in Facebook? Social networking enables companies to discover not just the answers to their questions, but the answers to questions they’d never thought of asking.”

Literally any kind of business, whether b2b, b2c or even in the third sector, can benefit, insists Robert Epstein, head of small and medium businesses at Microsoft. “Take a restaurant, for example. They could use YouTube or MySpace to take customers behind the scenes visually. They could use Twitter to provide regular updates and Facebook and LinkedIn to enable people to post electronic versions of their CV and to connect to other people to get ideas about how to improve.”

A further advantage of social networking is its ability to help you find an enthusiastic group of like-minded professionals in your field sharing their ideas and contacts to make good things happen – and there’s also the capacity for search engine optimisation (SEO), says Tim Prizeman, director of Kelso Consulting. “LinkedIn profiles, for example, get indexed by search engines – so, providing it has appropriate keywords, it can be another way of ensuring that when someone searches you have as many mentions as possible in the results page.”

For Paul Armstrong, from the communications agency Kindred, the opportunities for monitoring in real time are unsurpassed. “Businesses increasingly want continual monitoring solutions to maintain their reputations online,” he says, although he adds that astute firms don’t just listen and protect, but proactively engage customers and potential customers too. “Business should organically integrate themselves into the spaces.”

The starting point for any business, according to Matt Rhodes, head of client services at social-media experts FreshNetworks, is ensuring you know what you want to achieve – increased brand awareness, customer retention, a feedback mechanism and so on. “Next, establish who you want to engage – new or existing customers, a certain part of your customer group or more general. Then work out where these people congregate and what will engage them best.”

The biggest mistakes companies make, he says, are implementing a tool-based, as opposed to people-based, strategy and simply choosing the best-known communities. “It may be that you just won’t be able to engage people in, for instance, Facebook,” he says, adding that sustained engagement is also key.

Remember that social media is particularly good for micro-interactions, says Rhodes. “Twitter is particularly effective at this. Rather than having one Twitter account, companies can easily run a range of accounts, each aimed at different groups of people. You will attract people who are interested in that specific area and will be able to give them only the information they are interested in.”

Rhodes also encourages brands to create their own online communities. “Ask people to upload their memories of a particular experience with a brand or to work with you to develop a product.” IdeaStorm is, for example, Dell’s online tool that allows customers to share ideas. Dell has received over 9,000 ideas that have led to a number of solutions, including pre-installing Linux on PCs. Even Burberry has announced the launch of its own social-networking site, artofthetrench.com, to enable customers to “feel the brand.”

Despite its reputation, don’t underestimate the power of blogging, adds Molly Flatt, president at WOM UK, which represents the word-of-mouth marketing industry in the UK. “Blogs are particularly good for soapboxing,” she says.

Always facilitate genuine dialogue. A survey by the Global Web Index found people think better of brands that provide a page on a social network where you can ask questions. Audi recently used this to its advantage by using Facebook to help gather views as part of its product development cycle. And manipulate social networking’s conventions at your peril – Habitat caused controversy and irritation among Twitter users for attracting unsuspecting traffic to its advertising.

Don’t let your social networking strategy become a free-for-all, advises Graham Thatcher, director of the media relations agency MCC international. “Set a process in place for who is authorised to post information on behalf of the organisation, who is responsible for monitoring feedback and responding to it. That said, |look around your organisation and the chances are there will be members of the team who already have a strong grasp of these sites for their own personal usage.”

Don’t forget the power of social networking for recruitment, adds Lucie Bickerdike, account executive at the Hoffman Agency. “I was recruited exclusively through Twitter. My line manager was searching profiles for people looking for PR jobs, and my profile matched the criteria. We set up a meeting through Twitter, and I was offered the job after one interview.”

Six of the best

LinkedIn: A business-oriented social networking site allowing registered users to maintain a list of business contact details.

Twitter: One of the 50 most popular websites in the world, Twitter is a social networking and micro-blogging service.

Facebook: Not just for keeping tabs on friends. It can also be used for marketing your products, landing new clients and

connecting with your customers.

Ning: A platform to create your own subject-specific network.

Industry-specific communities: From Scispace.net, a network for scientists, to ReverbNation.com, one for independent musicians, it pays to find a group of likeminded professionals in your field sharing their ideas.

The blogosphere: Blogs form a social network of their own. You need to earn respect through your own, original, soapbox.