The cost (and payoff) of investing in social media

Twitter grew 3,000 per cent in April. Facebook hosted 61.2 million visitors in March. LinkedIn counts 20 million users worldwide.

With a potential audience that big, it’s no wonder savvy entrepreneurs are looking to unlock the secrets of social media as another way to get the word out about their businesses. Free access to many social media accounts (and potential clients) just adds to the allure.

But is social media right for your business? Could it be a free substitute for a traditional (read: expensive) advertising plan? How much time should be spent in the care and feeding of all those profiles? The answers may surprise you.

“Traditional advertising and marketing is not dead,” says Olivier Blanchard, business strategist and principal of The Brand Builder Marketing. Blanchard advocates integrating social media into a more traditional marketing and advertising plan, “so you can have a healthy mix, much like a diversified investment portfolio.”

Though the platforms will differ based on the type of business, Sarah Granger, founder of a technology communications strategy firm Public Edge, encourages small organizations to have a solid website, e-mail list and a contact database before venturing into social media.

Blogs: Write your way to success

If you want to build customer loyalty, Kristi Colvin says start blogging now. “Many platforms allow you to blog comfortably,” says the chief creative officer at We Heart and Twitterface. She recommends Tumblr for smaller businesses, “because it is customizable, extremely easy to learn to use, and has an additional component that allows you to follow people and re-blog their content easily.”

Colvin believes blogging takes disseminating information about a company a step beyond formal press releases, ads, marketing brochures and websites. “That is where the magic happens in social media. A well-managed blog invites peoples’ perspectives and provides an opening for real relationships to be formed which is a critical aspect of great customer service, and a good user experience. It can be a stepping stone to brand attachment,” she says.

That attachment doesn’t have to equal a huge time commitment, but expect to spend an hour or two to knock out a post. The rewards are immediate: Blogs that are refreshed regularly get a boost in search engine rankings. “It also helps to establish you as an authority,” says Blanchard who suggests writing during evenings or on weekends to maximize regular working hours.

Twitter: To tweet or not to tweet

Granger says she used to advise companies to start with a blog, but now suggests getting on Twitter first. She also advocates engaging in conversation. Connecting with a business owner on Twitter “produces the necessary personal touch so many clients and customers prefer,” she says, and offers a time management tip for those tweeting entrepreneurs. “[Free] mobile tools such as Tweetie and Tweetdeck can make it a lot easier to keep up with the ongoing conversation,” Granger says. That way, a company announcement of a new product or promotion could be tweeted with a link back to details on the company’s blog or website, all while standing in a latte line.

The rapid-fire conversations on Twitter have the added bonus of giving entrepreneurs who’ve built a network, “instant answers to questions, feedback on brand elements, product ideas, etc.,” Colvin says.

YouTube: Be a star

Another way to capitalize on the fast pace of social media is by posting videos on YouTube. With a little creativity and relatively low overhead (Flip video cameras can be had for as little as $100) uploading a short clip can be a rapid way to test the market. “Release freebies to capture a niche. Then find the demand and create the product,” says Steven Weathers, who documents his adventures in China on YouTube.

As founder of American English Circle, and producer and host of Foreigner Perspective, Weathers uses videos to help the Chinese learn English and to give Westerners a glimpse of life in Asia. By hiring students he spends around $10 per finished minute of video, less if he tapes himself.

To learn how to create good content Weathers suggests watching some viral videos. The payoff? “You will reach a wider audience than with network TV,” says Weathers.

LinkedIn: Business networking made easier

A glowing recommendation is a gold star for any type of business, so why not collect and post them for all to see? It’s easily done on LinkedIn. Creating a profile allows an entrepreneur to create an online career history, then to connect with others they’ve worked with. Obtaining a recommendation from a former colleague or existing client may help sway a potential investor or customer.

Additionally, Kimberly LeRiche of JK Virtual Office Resources says, “LinkedIn provides the opportunity to connect with others who are also looking to create partnerships or to collaborate.” LeRiche also notes that LinkedIn has incorporated additional social networking capabilities such as special interest groups and open discussion threads. Digests from these groups can be delivered by e-mail to scan or read in-depth, depending on interest in the topic and how much time there is on hand.

The bottom line

Time is money, but Weathers says it’s all about how you manage it. “Previously wasted down time like sitting in taxis for 20 minutes or standing in a bank line for 10 minutes is now spent on my mobile phone, bouncing between Twitter and Facebook. It’s getting easier and easier, and for branding an entrepreneur, I think it’s golden.”

No matter what the platform, Blanchard says the true value of social media is found in the conversation. “You are not necessarily going to get 150 comments per day, but you are engaging a potential customer or client in the way you wouldn’t in an ordinary day.”

PC World (US)

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