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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Are NASE Members Making The Most Of Social Media Tools?
By Jan Norman

It wasn’t too long ago that micro-business owners could contemplate – in all seriousness – whether they needed a business Web site.

Now – in all seriousness – a business without a Web site is like a salesman without business cards.

Even customers who live within a mile of a shop or office wonder if the venture is legitimate if it doesn’t have some Internet presence. And many business Web sites are now being enhanced with features such as blogs, podcasts and v-casts that connect with customers. Is your micro-business keeping pace by offering the latest and greatest interactive elements?

NASE Member William Jewell makes the majority of his sales through his Web site, www.historicalwoods.com. As owner of Historical Woods of America Inc. in Fredericksburg, Va., Jewell removes damaged trees from historical locations, such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home in Virginia, and makes products from the wood. In addition to his Web sales, he also sells products at craft shows and in gift shops.

“We’re trying to do everything in-house through the Web site or craft shows,” he says.

NASE Member Kim Neel, owner of Alala LLC in Columbia, S.C., sells post-surgical supplies for cancer survivors. She appreciates the necessity of having a Web site, even though a large portion of her target market doesn’t use the Internet.

“I do have an online store, but the site is mainly informational,” she says of her Web site at www.alala.info. “We have links to helpful resources like the American Cancer Society, but we get very little revenue.”

One of Neel’s assistants set up an Alala page on MySpace, the most popular social networking site, but the firm hasn’t done much with it. Neel and her business partner Sherry Norris are exploring how to put a video on the Alala Web site to demonstrate a new product invented by Norris’ husband. The product makes it easier to put on a compression sleeve that’s used to treat a swollen arm that often occurs after breast cancer surgery. It would be a good candidate for an online video product demonstration.

Jewell and Neel are like many micro-business owners who use their sites for marketing and e-commerce. But today the Internet offers a rapidly growing list of social media tools that micro-business owners can add to their Web sites or use in connection with those sites to boost their marketing.

Neel has heard of blogging (commentary on a Web site), podcasting (online audio programming) and Twitter (messages of fewer than 140 characters), “but it would take so much energy to figure out how to use them,” she says.

Jewell, too, has yet to use such interactive tools.

But like many other micro-business owners, Jewell and Neel are asking themselves whether learning and using these tools would be worth the time and effort.

Business Benefits Of New Online Tools

The biggest advantage of new online social media tools for business is that they allow interaction between consumers and businesses. The owner can talk to customers and prospects; find out what they’re thinking, buying and no longer buying; ask them questions; answer their questions; show them how to use products and more.

As micro-business owners learn about these opportunities, more see business applications. In a recent survey by SurePayroll, an online payroll service for small businesses, 55 percent of respondents said that online social networking tools have value for business, and 20 percent had actually obtained at least one new customer as a direct result of using social media tools.

A separate study by Access Markets International (AMI) Partners found that 600,000 small businesses plan to deploy integrated social networking services in the next year, double the 300,000 currently using them.

“Business-focused social networking offers an effective, relatively inexpensive and lucrative opportunity to keep steady communication with existing partners and clients as well as incubating new relationships,” says AMI Partners analyst Nikki Lamba.

Microsoft recognizes that these changes can be intimidating for busy micro-business owners who don’t have a full-time tech staff. So the company offers a free, online booklet, “Let’s Talk: Social Media for Small Business.” Written by John Jantsch, author of “Duct Tape Marketing” (Thomas Nelson Inc., 2007), the booklet explains the basics of social media such as blogs, RSS feeds, social networks and Twitter. You can download the booklet for free at http://smallbusiness.officelive.com/socialmedia.

Web Site Communication Tools
Because two-way communication is the most important part of social media tools, Jantsch thinks micro-business owners should start with blogging. A blog, short for Web log, is merely a Web site with frequently updated commentary. Typically a blog encourages comments from readers and provides links to related content on other Web sites and blogs. Chances are, many of the Web sites you visit are really blogs. Micro-business owners can combine their existing Web site with a blog to connect in a personal and continual way with customers and prospects.

You can use posts on your blog to tell customers about new products or services, announce special sales, poll customers about a possible change in the business, and become known as an expert in your industry.

Tom Peters, author of “In Search of Excellence” (Collins Business in 2004), is blunt about the need for business owners to blog.

“If you’re not blogging, you’re an idiot,” he told a September 2008 gathering of owners of businesses on the Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing private companies. “No single thing in the last 15 years has been more important to me professionally than blogging … It’s the best marketing tool and it’s free.”

Other online communications tools that micro-business owners can put on their Web sites or link to include podcasts (radio-like audio programs), v-casts (podcasts with video) and YouTube videos.

Podcasting, which takes its name from the Apple iPod personal media player, started in September 2004. Since then it has exploded into hundreds of millions of programs such as the tax podcasts by NASE National Tax Advisor Keith Hall. Such programs establish their hosts as experts in their field and give quality content to their Web sites, which in turn attracts more online traffic and more business.

And the great part is that anyone with a computer, microphone and free software can create a podcast. An inexpensive camera adds video.

Millions of businesses have used YouTube to distribute product demonstrations. These videos can easily be put into a blog or onto a Web site.

One famous YouTube example is Blendtec, which manufactures high-end blenders. The company has posted a series of “Will it Blend?” videos on YouTube that demonstrate a Blendtec blender chopping up ballpoint pens, iPhones, golf balls and other odd objects. In less than two minutes each video demonstrates the strength and power of a Blendtec blender.

Social Networks
One of the fastest growing online marketing tools for businesses is social networking.

MySpace, with more than 117 million users, and Facebook, with more than 70 million, are the best known. But hundreds of niche networks have sprung up in the past year. Ning, a Web site that provides a platform for anyone to start a social network, projects there will be 4 million specialty social networks by 2010.

“Social networking offers small-business owners an inexpensive and effective way to connect with their customers and prospects,” says David Rohrer, online marketing manager for SurePayroll.

To use social networks effectively, you want to sign up and be active on the networks most used by your customers and prospects.

For example, Facebook started as a site for college students, but now its average user is between the ages of 30 and 40. Lymabean has stepped into the void. It targets college students and offers interactive tools about individual campuses as well as the surrounding towns. A restaurant or clothing store in one of those targeted towns might want to participate in Lymabean to reach its college customers.

LinkedIn is a social network for business professionals. It connects people with similar interests for business rather than social purposes. It’s a great place to ask business questions, do market research, network online, find employees or consultants, and find customers.

“One of the core marketing, strategic objectives of social networks is to expand your reach and open up new avenues of networking,” says author Jantsch. “On any social network … it’s important that you take a little time and get to know the culture and the accepted norms.”

Participants in any social network don’t appreciate a hard sell, but they do want to know about a business and how they can benefit from what the business has to offer.

Twitter is a different type of niche social network. Anyone can participate, but their answers, called Tweets, are limited to 140 characters in response to “What are you doing?” The typical initial reaction to Twitter is, what’s the point? But a growing number of entrepreneurs are finding that following and being followed by customers and colleagues on Twitter helps their businesses. They can announce new products or a sudden service outage, ask advice, get instant feedback about products, services or events, and build relationships.

Online Directories
In addition to your own Web site, you should make use of online business directories, such as superpages.com. These let you list your business for free, and some allow consumers to review products and services they have used.

Lymabean, the college social networking site, allows businesses to list themselves and events they host for free in the towns where they’re located. It also sells advertising, but to attract site visitors, the site wants a robust directory of things to do and places to go.

The fact that more Web sites and blogs allow comments can benefit micro-business owners. Your customers can post rave reviews about your business, products and services. On the other hand, unsatisfied customers can criticize your business, products or services online.

So how do you keep track of comments being made about your business? Google Alerts. Every time your business name shows up online, Google will send you an e-mail update. Go to Google.com to set up a free alert. It’s just one more of the interactive online tools that can help your micro-business.



Freelance writer Jan Norman has a blog at ocregister.com/jan. Give her your feedback.

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