Businesses have been reluctant to adopt social networking as a marketing strategy, with some companies even blocking access to social networks as part of company policy. Whilst this may seem a good move when trying to keep employees busy doing their jobs rather than completing their Facebook profile, marketing and communications departments have been slowly but surely become more frustrated at lost opportunities.

Social networking is an innate human trait, and in the business world, networking is vital. Hence the rise in networking events, business network breakfasts and so on. Moving this online was inevitable with the rise of the Internet, and businesses who fail to engage in the social network world with a cohesive marketing plan are more than missing a trick.

There are now many case studies of well-known brands who are successfully using social networking, not just for raising brand awareness and PR, but also for getting in contact with new and existing customers, for promoting products and services, offering white papers, freebies, coupons and discounts, and possibly most importantly, for listening to feedback from their customers.

Some companies have been flamed for the lack of interaction on blogs (for instance, disabling or removing comments), and it has not taken long for the lessons learnt by the likes of Johnson & Johnson and the damage allegedly done to reputations, to sink in. Businesses are realising that, whether you like it or not, your customers are sometimes going to make negative comments about your company, products and services. Those comments are going to be out there on the Net, and the realisation that they are better made in a place where you can at least spot them and respond is dawning on many of the large brands.

Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Ecademy are different types of social networks, but each is valuable if it is the right tool for the job for your company, and is included in a marketing strategy that understands the opportunities and limitations of each network.

Twitter for instance is a great place to disseminate news about your products, to make an offer to your followers, to easily contact your customers at minimal cost, to create a following and conversation. The brand that is Stephen Fry has become synonymous with Twitter in the UK, and as a least cost marketing tool has proven very effective, bringing Stephen’s products to a global audience with very little effort. It has also minimised the costs, in both time and money, in dealing with customers and followers through more expensive channels, such as advertising, email, website updates and so on.

Facebook is being used successfully by many global product names to create fan pages and product pages, which then offer viral opportunities when the product is pushed through users’ feeds, thereby bringing in more fans and ‘groupies’. Facebook users are no longer just bored teens, and many silver surfers are also using Facebook as an easy way to share information with friends and family. This means that the Facebook demographic has changed, and creating pages or groups which are of interest to a particular target audience, geographic region and so on is a desirable, low cost strategy for many businesses.

LinkedIn is primarily a business network, and whilst being effective in bringing your business to the attention of others in the same sector, it has wider uses. Firstly, the chance to develop contacts with your suppliers, potential suppliers and customers, and others within the industry. The value of these contacts can never be underestimated, and there are many deals brokered through LinkedIn which would have been difficult or impossible without some expensive real world networking at conferences etc. Another aspect of LinkedIn which is frequently overlooked by the business world is the ability to create or join groups, where both promotion and discussion are the norm. By contributing to discussions, your company or yourself can be seen to be an expert in the field, and this in itself is valuable in online promotion. Additionally, there are many groups for promotion of products or services, as well as recruitment for specific sectors, and these add to the arsenal of promotional spots for articles, white papers, jobs, discounted services and so on.

Ecademy is similar to LinkedIn but, having been established for longer, has a wider range of available opportunities within its website, reaching both on and offline. Ecademy can be more time-consuming purely because of that, but equally as valuable as LinkedIn when seeking business contacts, and opportunities to bring your knowledge and expertise to a wider audience.

As with all these networks, it is essential to put time into the developing of relationships and holding conversations in order to reap the rewards. It is vital to remember that this must be a two way process. Hard sell will not work on any of the social networks, just as it is not a popular mechanism in much of real life. It is very much about giving first and foremost, and acquiring respect from your peers, customers, followers, as well as listening and showing an interest. The payback can be huge though if you are successful, and many of the internet marketers who tweet are garnering increasing amounts of custom by regularly talking as well as listening.

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About the author:

Phil Robinson is an online marketing consultant with over 17 years experience in marketing planning, internet strategy and online acquisition. In 2004, Phil founded ClickThrough, an ethical search marketing agency. He gives best practice training for businesses, runs seminars and writes books on digital marketing.