With all the buzz surrounding sites like Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, the question remains – why is this important to my business? Well, it’s pretty simple. It could be detrimental to your business if you don’t.

First, let’s talk about how “Citizen Marketers”, as author Jackie Huba calls them / us, can have an impact. In his book, “What Would Google Do”, author Jeff Jarvis talks about his experience in June 2005 with Dell. In his now famous example, Jeff had a bad experience with a Dell purchase. In the past, he might have told a few people, who told a few people, and over an extended period of time, perhaps an extremely small segment of the population would have had avoided buying a Dell product.

But, with the advent of blogging, this changed the playing field. Jeff, who happens to be the proprietor of one of the Web’s most popular and respected blogs, Buzzmachine.com, blogged about it. Others read his blog, and they blogged about their bad experiences. And, it quickly had a significant impact on Dell’s reputation, and their sales.

Fortunately, in this case, Dell did the right thing. First, they started their own blog, and reached out to those bloggers that complained, basically saying “We’re Listening”. Then, they launched another blog called “IdeaStorm” – where customers could tell Dell what to do, discussing and voting on communities favorite ideas. Negative blog buzz dropped from 49% to 22% within a year.

Lesson – The customer knows best – and that the customer is boss – now we have to mean it. The customer is in control.

Getting involved in social media – joining the communities that people are involved in that impact your business – is how you can make sure that even though the customer is in control, that you are working with them, rather than against them, in growing your business.

So, the goal here is to understand what message is out there currently about your company, and then take steps to engage the community creating that message – and build relationships within that community. The best way to start is:

1. Google yourself and your company. Do it in Technorati, Icerocket, Blogpulse, YouTube, and Twitter.
2. Respond. Do it yourself. Be yourself. Find a problem. Fix it. Learn from it. Then tell people what you learned. Now, though, you’ll do it in public.
3. Do this by calling the person with the problem. Tell them you understand the problem and fix it and you’re grateful for his help.
4. Once fixed – encourage them to blog about the experience.
5. Start a blog yourself, and share the problems and solutions as they occur.

What you are doing here is creating relationships. Just like you do with your friends, family, and customers face-to-face. But now you are expanding far beyond your “core” group – you are also reaching out to those that you may not have ever thought of. Keep in mind that the people who say good things are important – they become your testimonials. But more important are those that aren’t happy. Think about it – they care about your business – why else would they take the time & effort to blog / post / tweet about it?

Next is to understand why things have developed like they have. From what I’ve experienced, Social Media has developed in the following stages:

Stage 1 –  Website: Basically an online brochure for the company. Little to no interaction between company and customer other than a “contact us” form.Stage 2 – Blogs: Gave companies an easy to use way to start building a relationship with their customers – and with “People” rather than “Companies” blogging, blogs quickly turned into communities. Citizens started to take control of the message – but with so many blogs covering similar topics, it became difficult for the customer to make sense of relevant information.

Stage 3 – Communities: With MySpace and Facebook, communities solidified among common interests  – i.e. “Friends”. Dissemination and sharing of information generated out of Stage 2 made it much easer to make sense of relevant information.

Stage 4 – Twitter: Combines best of Stage 2 & Stage 3 – with the 140 character mini-blog. With the ability to follow others & gain followers, sharing of information via “tiny links” ties back info from blogs & social networks back into the mainstream in a controlled fashion.

The Benefit: Engagement Correlates To Financial Performance
In a recent study by The Altimeter Group, they found that implementing a social medial strategy for your business has a quantifiable result on revenues. When they looked at the financial performance of brands, they found that those companies that engaged in social media grew their revenues 18% over the last 12 months, compared to the least engaged companies who on average, saw a 6% decline in revenue during the same period. As they put it, “For example, a company mindset that allows a company to be broadly engage with customers on the whole probably performs better because the company is more focused on companies than the competition.” |  ENGAGEMENTdb – Altimeter 20 July 2009

According to their study, 4 things stand out:

It’s about quality, not quantity.
Don’t just set up a blog or a Facebook profile and leave it out there – keep up with it. Keep your content fresh. Build a network of friends & followers. Get involved with  your audience.It’s everbody’s job.
Don’t just assign this to one person in your organization. Get everybody involved – if someone engages your suppliers and / or customers, those customer touch points are where your social media efforts need to target.

If you can’t do everything – do something.
Start now, or you’ll fall behind. Even if your customers aren’t doing it – eventually they will.

Find your sweet spot.
Test and see what works best – then do it well. Be the master of what works, rather than spread yourself thin and be a master of nothing.

How to Start:

  • Again, search about yourself – and your competitors. It’s free market research to better understand how customers perceive you.
  • Remember that you don’t control your brand. Your customer does. To influnce their perception, you have to build relationships with them.
  • Start with the basics. Start a blog. You can make a free online one at blogger.com, or WordPress.com.
  • Start a Facebook account. Keep it focused on your business.
  • Start a Twitter account. Search for, and follow, those that affect your business. Your suppliers. Your customers. Publications that influence your industry. Even your competitors.
  • Start a Friendfeed account – and link your blog, your Facebook account, and your Twitter account together – that’s what FriendFeed does.
  • Do it every day. Tell your friends, your employees, your customers – to log on and “tweet”. Get a smartphone and do it on the run. Just do it!
  • Remember that this is constantly changing – so don’t worry about knowing how to do everything at once. Just start slow – and to get an idea of how to post – read the posts of those you follow – both in blogs & Twitter. You’ll quickly get the hang of it!

This isn’t rocket science. And, it’s not something you can take lightly either. But keep in mind that by doing this right – and right now – you have the opportunity to not just learn about what your customer thinks about you today, you have the chance to have a positive impact on what they think tomorrow – and with the growth of online communities, you can impact the perceptions of everybody they are connected with as well!