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social networking for your business

Social media marketing is a fast-growing innovation, tapping into the rising influence of user-generated communities such as blogs, wikis, networking, and bookmarking sites.

By joining these active communities, you can build relationships and promote your products and/or expertise.

Generally, online social networks attract members who bond over shared interests and opinions. That creates a clubby and trusted group of virtually connected friends or associates. So when a member or blogger recommends your product, commends your service, or endorses your comments, it results in powerful “word of mouse” referrals.

Alternatively, if you make the effort, you can develop your own following on social media sites as an opinion-maker, authority, adviser, industry analyst, or wry observer.

As a result of getting noticed in all the right places, you can generate leads and convert those leads into sales.

Tip: However tempting it may be, don’t assume a fake identity to talk up your company (unless you’re being an obvious jokester). It’s bound to boomerang.

User-generated communities aren’t just for kids anymore

Don’t think this strategy only suits niche markets. Social sites are exploding across the Web.

The most popular categories tend to be communities where you create and share information, such as MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, Bebo, Squidoo, and Tagged. Or it can be those where you bookmark useful or fun sites for other users, such as Digg, del.icio.us, or StumbleUpon. Visit this page for a broad list of social networking and media sites.

Visitors to social media sites jumped a staggering 774 percent between 2006 and 2007, according to a 2007 comScore study. And the Pew Internet Study reports that some 50 million Americans are reading blogs. What’s more, adult interaction in social media is significantly on the rise.

Choosing your online megaphone

For small-business owners, the social media horizon is broad indeed.

Like much of search engine marketing, social media marketing doesn’t cost much in dollars. But it does require time and effort to:

* investigate sites;
* create and monitor content;
* track traffic and referrals;
* refine efforts to improve results, and
* keep at it until you have an impact.

Here are some proven ways to start stirring the pot. You’ll learn more as you go.

1. Contribute to a community whose members mirror your customers. By checking into the comments, forums, and profiles of a community, you can determine member interests, locations, and a rough sense of demographics. Once you’ve identified a community that matches your preferred customer, there are a number of ways to get noticed.

For example, Irina Patterson runs an event-planning business from her home in Miami. She often posts on the local craigslist and, she says, gets great results. “It is a community that responds almost instantly. You can pose a question, share a resource, ask for a barter deal or ask for advice. You can target specific geographic areas, which is important for a service business like mine.”

Patterson makes sure her posts link back to her company Web site.

2. Become a commentator on a well-trafficked blog in your industry or field. Don’t ignore the blogosphere. According to Technorati, the blog search engine, nearly 97 million blogs were being published as of mid-2007.

Get familiar with a few blogs compatible with your business. A good start is a search on Technorati as well as visits to your industry or professional associations and trade journals to see what they serve up.

Make sure you’re up-to-speed on the blog’s tone, issues, and attitudes before you chime in. When you start generating reactions, you’ll know you’re hitting nerves.

3. Create a viral video campaign. Online videos are now cheap and easy to create and upload, notes search engine marketing consultant Susan Gilbert at JoomlaJump.com.

Produce a video of two to three minutes that dramatizes or explains your online site or your market niche and yourself. Then upload the video to MSN, YouTube, or other video communities to drive traffic to your Web site, Gilbert says.

If you link the videos to community pages on social bookmarking sites, you create a little network that search engines will find. Next thing you know, you’re getting referred traffic and, potentially, more customers.

4. Join a professional networking site (or two). These can be hit or miss, depending on what you market and how you work the community. For professional services such as PR and consulting, it can generate leads. Check out examples such as LinkedIn, ZoomInfo, Facebook, and Biltmore Who’s Who. Then branch out to others.

5. Launch a blog. This is the most obvious idea, and, no question, online templates now make it easy to create a blog. Run a search and you’ll find options. What’s hard is to gain traction and keep posting lively content (with a link to your company site, of course). See these tips for starting a blog.

6. Become a dedicated gamer. Game for this? Depending on your wares and customer profile, engaging in the multi-user online gaming community can be a rewarding way to draw traffic and viral referrals, says Marian Sabety, at Wyndstorm, a social network technology marketer.

One of the largest is World of Warcraft, but new ones pop up frequently.

Unless you are already pulling lots of traffic, first gain experience with some of the above tactics before starting a blog. Once you have the hang of it, you’ll know more about leveraging the power of a personal blog.

Finally, remember to add value rather than to merely advertise your product. To make social media marketing work, you must enjoy being part of the community.

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