"Social networking", "Web 2.0", "interactive marketing". Whatever you call it, lots of people are talking about the implications for business and online marketing. This article is not a complete guide, but provides a quick introduction to the main tools and how they can help you.
Web 2.0 broadly refers to any kind of interactive website, where people talk to each other, post or comment on information or news, or share their recommendations. From a business point of view, Web 2.0 means anywhere that people can comment on your business or get live updates on what you're doing.
Mostly used as a personal tool, Facebook is a way for people to connect with their friends and share thoughts, photos and other personal information. Facebook was originally created as a networking tool for the alumni of an American college, but is now used by millions of people and businesses around the world.
Members have a free profile and can connect with "friends" if both parties agree. They then get access to read the other person's updates. Businesses can set up Facebook group pages, which work in a slightly different way as they allow Facebook members to become "fans" of your business. There has been an explosion recently in the number of businesses using Facebook to connect with their customers and other interested people.
Within the Facebook account you can write updates on what you're doing, upload images and manage events. When someone first becomes a fan of your business, this will be posted on their own status so their friends can see it. Whenever you update own status, your fans will see that comment in a list of what's happening across their network, so they'll be more aware of what you're doing.
LinkedIn works in much the same way as Facebook, but is aimed purely at work - business and careers. You can make connections with people you know, and request introductions to their connections, giving you potential access to a huge number of people. You also get a status update, which allows you to post thoughts or requests, or link with other update services like Twitter.
You join LinkedIn as an individual, but you can create groups around a company or special interest. There are also discussion threads, and it's a good idea to sign up to alerts so you can provide advice or mention your expertise when it's appropriate.
Simply put, Twitter lets you post a text message which lots of people can read online. Your message can be up to 140 characters and include images and web links. Unless you make your Twitter account private, anyone can read your "tweets". If someone subscribes to your Twitter account, they become your "follower".
People can either read your updates on your public Twitter page (e.g. www.twitter.com/bluelinemediauk), or browse a chronological list of updates from all the people they are following. Because it is more open than Facebook, Twitter users generally follow a lot more people beyond their personal network. There are a number of celebrities and businesses using Twitter to provide direct updates to their followers. You can use it to post updates about your business, such as new products or clients.
Flickr is an online photo album that allows you to share images and videos with anyone who is interested. It's mostly used as a personal resource but can be a useful tool for your business to publish media online. Images are more interesting and engaging than plain text, and people are more likely to click through and find out more. People can add comments or responses to your pictures.
You can set up a free Flickr account and either direct people to your unique URL (ours is www.flickr.com/photos/bluelinemedia) or provide a live feed on your site. You could use Flickr to post image examples of your work or products, pictures of your office or events, or new members of staff.
If you read blogs or articles online, you may have noticed a row of little icons at the bottom of the page. These links allow users to recommend that page by posting a link to third party services like Facebook, Twitter and a number of directory services including Digg and StumbleUpon. Depending on the service they're using, people can either update their friends, keep a bookmark for their own use, or submit your listing to a public resource.
If you're regularly writing articles or updating a blog, submission links like these can help generate more traffic to your site. Tools like Add This provide a simple bit of code for your site, which will allow users to submit to dozens of different services with one click.
What's a blog?
More and more websites are including a "blog" in their website. The term blog is an abbreviation of "web log", and is a diary or series of posts listed online. Blogs are a more informal way of providing news online, so readers don't expect them to be long or detailed (this article is an exception!). It's easier for you to update because you can just add a quick thought or link to a new client's website, for example.
You can also let readers add comments to create a conversation and a more useful resource. You can include submission tools as above, or provide an RSS feed to make it easier for people to stay up to date. By widening the conversation, your website can become more of a community tool that people are likely to visit more often.
Many online resources include an RSS feed to allow people to promote their content more easily. An RSS feed is a very simple data feed listing multiple items, usually with a title, web link and date. Other websites can then use this raw data feed to provide content for their own site, like the latest news headlines. For a more detailed explanation, read the BBC guide to RSS feeds.
Once you've created an RSS feed, uses include letting other websites list your headlines, automatically posting new blog entries on Twitter, or allowing people to read your articles with Google Reader. We have created RSS feeds for our clients to list news items, latest jobs and blog entries.
How to make the best of social media
First of all, decide if the social networking options above are really for you. Just because a feature is available and popular doesn't mean it will work for your business. At Bluelinemedia, we don't have a Facebook page because our customers are businesses not personal consumers, so we don't think it's appropriate.
If you do decide to try one of these options, commit to keeping it up to date. A Twitter feed or blog that hasn't been updated in months can actually look worse than nothing at all. We chose a blog and Twitter updates because they can be brief, so it's easier for us to add new items.
Make one person responsible for keeping your new tools up to date, get them to regularly ask for new ideas (e.g. in a weekly team meeting), and commit to a minimum number of new items, say a new blog item at least once a week. Also, think about the regular items you can always talk about - new clients, new staff, special offers - and make updating your social tools part of your existing process.
Get social media right and you'll create a stronger image and closer relationships with your customers.