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Schmoozing For Sales

Monday, September 13, 2010
Social Networks Give Micro-Businesses More Marketing Muscle

By Phillip M. Perry

When consultant Jennifer Schaus joined LinkedIn a couple of years ago, she looked upon the social network as little more than a convenient way to keep track of clients and prospects.

“I saw the service as a good way to preserve my critical business contacts in case my computer crashed and I lost my data,” recalls Schaus, who helps clients sell goods and services to the federal government.

It wasn’t long, though, before Schaus discovered something equally beneficial. LinkedIn members participate in a large number of message boards with business-related information. Schaus began to wonder if these boards might help her market her services.

“I began to answer questions on the boards from entrepreneurs who wanted to do business with the U.S. government,” she says. “This looked like a great way to provide proof of my expertise and indirectly market myself to the person who asked the question as well as the many people who simply read the questions.”

Schaus always included contact details—phone, e-mail and website—in her answers.

“Readers clicked over to my website for more information about my service. I started to get e-mails and phone calls that started with words such as ‘Jennifer, I saw your recent advice on LinkedIn.’”

When those inquirers began turning into clients, Schaus was bitten with the social networking bug. She took the concept to a higher level by posting her own questions on the boards with the idea of generating interest in her services. Her questions were often as simple as “Have you considered selling your products and services to the U.S. government to capture stimulus funding–and what is your business-to-government strategy?”

The approach worked.

“Open-ended questions are basic sales 101 skills,” she says. “The dialogs that resulted from my questions helped me learn about client needs and tailor solutions for them.”

Today Schaus uses as many social networks as possible to expand her business.

“I selected the networks where I would get the best return for my time invested, since posting and responding to messages can be a time-intensive process,” she says. “My main priority now is LinkedIn, followed by Facebook and Twitter.”

With a bit of time and effort, you could put social media to work for your micro-business. Here’s how.

Build Relationships

Schaus’s story typifies the experience of micro-business owners everywhere: Social networks can be rich sources of new clients and profitable deals. The main ingredient in all of these media is personal interaction.

“Social media are all about people networking online with other people,” says Frank F. Chiera, executive vice president for social media integration at Kel & Partners, the Boston-based public relations agency. “It’s not about me as a business owner pitching my goods and services to clients, but rather about starting a dialog and building relationships.”

How many social networks are there? Nearly 200 according to a continually updated list on Wikipedia,
an online encyclopedia.

Each social network tends to cultivate a distinct group of people. The good news is that most of the networks offer their services at no cost. They make their profits through fees for optional premium services and advertising.

Facebook & LinkedIn

Facebook is one of the fastest growing networks. Because of its personal orientation, the service is most often viewed as a strong channel for business-to-consumer marketing. Yet Facebook’s environment of personal engagement can foster profitable business dealings.

That’s been the experience at New York City-based HJMT Communications. Because this public relations firm sells primarily to other businesses, you might think its favorite social network would be LinkedIn. Not so.

“I really like the intimacy of Facebook because I feel that personal communication is vital to building business relationships,” says company president and CEO Hilary JM Topper, who is also author of “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Social Media, but were afraid to ask....” (iUniverse.com, 2009).

The facts bear her out. Of Topper’s 1,500 Facebook friends, about 90 percent are business owners, which makes a terrific pool of prospects and referrals. And these business people do take time for the personal touch. On her last birthday Topper received 50 goodwill messages.

“I responded to each and every one,” she says.

Yet Topper doesn’t rely on Facebook alone.

“I am on 25 social networking sites and I try to build a community on each of them,” she says. “I try to
post regularly about any topic I think will help other businesses.”

And yes, Topper does use LinkedIn—often as a high-tech search service for tracking down elusive prospects. The trick, she says, is to find someone in your own friend network with a friend in the network of your prospect—then ask for an introduction.

Topper gives this example: “We were looking to make a pitch to the American Heart Association. My business development person used Google to look up the name of the marketing director at the AHA. Then she searched for that person in LinkedIn and discovered mutual acquaintances in the individual’s friend network. She then had her own friend arrange for the introduction.”

Twitter

If LinkedIn and Facebook have captured a good deal of attention over the past few years, Twitter is fast becoming the social network of choice for a growing number of assertive micro-business owners.

One such business is FashionPlaytes, an Internet-based clothing design studio for girls ages 5 to 12. The audience for FashionPlaytes consists largely of moms.

And thousands of those moms spend lots of time on Twitter, posting messages with useful information for their fellow mothers. These messages, or tweets, also often contain hyperlinks that direct readers to the posters’ personal blogs, which contain product reviews. And it is those reviews that represent a rich opportunity for businesses such as FashionPlaytes.

Valerie Fox, the company’s vice president of marketing, says, “We have used Twitter to tap into these ‘mommy bloggers.’ Many of them are thought leaders and evangelists for good quality products and have Twitter accounts with thousands of followers. So we give them the opportunity to test our site and our products at no cost and ask them to post candid reviews.”

The company’s grass-roots efforts to cultivate bloggers have paid off, says Fox.

“We’ve generated close to 50 product reviews resulting in millions of impressions.”

As the reputation of FashionPlaytes grows, more mommy bloggers contact the company and request product trial opportunities. Two of the firm’s seven employees each spend from 10 to 15 hours weekly posting tweets and communicating with followers.

The rapid success of Twitter is apparent in the numbers. FashionPlaytes began business in November 2009;
by April of this year it had already accumulated 1,200 followers.

“Twitter has become a cornerstone of our business,” says Fox.

Other micro-businesses also rave about Twitter. Consider SeaYu Enterprises, makers of Clean+Green, eco-friendly aerosol pet stain cleaning products. Founded in 2003, SeaYu started its Twitter account only last year and has already built a list of nearly 18,000 followers. That list represents a tremendous marketing opportunity for a business with only two full-time employees.

“Twitter helps us level the playing field with the big companies,” says Dennis L. Seaman, SeaYu’s vice president of sales and marketing. “It all goes back to your brand strategy. Big companies can overpower the market with advertising. A smaller business like ours needs to start from the grass roots to reach influencers.”

Seaman says that one secret of success when using Twitter is to offer helpful information.

“We send a tweet just about every day to let people know we are out there,” he says. “But we always provide useful information such as tips and tricks on how to keep the house clean with your pets. And I even ask if I can help with any potential pet issues.”

Tweets can contain short hyperlinks that send readers to articles of interest. Readers who click SeaYu’s links are often taken to articles such as “What are the dangers for a dog or cat with Christmas trees?” or “What are the top 10 most dangerous things for dogs regarding cleaning products?” Once at the SeaYu website, of course, readers can also see and order the company’s products.

One caution from Seaman: Avoid posting tweets for their own sake.

“As a user on Twitter, you have a responsibility to treat those who follow you as you would family members,” says Seaman. “Don’t exploit them by spamming them every five minutes. Instead, provide information you think is valuable.”

Social Media’s Big Payoff


For all these business owners and many others, social networks are becoming the driving force for successful marketing campaigns. And they can facilitate the kind of relationship building that can be difficult to do on a large scale in the real world.

“Years ago we went to networking parties,” says public relations consultant Topper. “The problem was that you never got much beyond ‘What do you do?’”

In contrast, she says, the personal engagement available through online social networking is much less superficial.

“Social networks provide the opportunity to know and learn about people and develop connections,” says Topper. “It’s a truism that you want to do business with people you like—and that is what’s so exciting about social networking.”


Author Phillip M. Perry is based in New York City and uses LinkedIn to reach potential clients across the country.


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