Starting the Conversation Online

If you haven’t made the jump already, now’s the time to create a solid online presence for your business. Harness the full power of social media by following the advice in the free e-book Let’s Talk: Social Media for Small Business, excerpted here.

What Is Social Media?
That’s a good question, and the complete answer could fill pages without really delivering the clarity that a small business marketer might desire.

So here’s the simple definition for the purpose of this document. Social media is the use of technology combined with social interaction to create or co-create value.

In a way, the definition doesn’t really matter nearly as much as the application and changing role of marketing in a social media world.

Social media—and by that I’m lumping together blogs, RSS, social search, social networks, and bookmarking—presents the marketer with a rich set of new tools to help in the effort to generate new business.

Why Does It Matter?
It used to be that all you needed to be on the Web was a Web site. Today you need to think and act in terms of a total Web presence. And that means if you’re not participating in social media, you’re not really online.

What’s Changed?
Well, c’mon, just about everything, right? If you studied marketing in the textbook world, you likely covered the 4 Ps of marketing: you simply created a Product, figured out how to Price it, got it Placed in the market, and Promoted the heck out of it.

Today’s approach to marketing, the approach infused with social media, leans much more heavily on the 4 Cs of marketing. Tons of relevant, education-based, and perhaps user-generated Content that is filtered, aggregated, and delivered in a Context that makes it useful for people who are starving to make Connections with people, products, and brands they can build a Community around.

Content + Context + Connections + Community = Social Media Marketing

The Hierarchy of Social Marketing
I think one of the things small business marketers struggle with concerning the entire topic of social marketing is trying to jump into the next new thing without enough analysis of what they should focus on. This is an important, evolving and essential area of marketing for small businesses, but there’s a hierarchy to it. In other words, there is a logical progression of utilization that comes about much like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Nature.

As Maslow theorized, the ultimate potential of your marketing or human self-actualization cannot be achieved until the most basic human psychological needs such as breathing, eating and sleeping are first met. In fact, safety, love and esteem all come before transcendence. Now, before I edge too close to the deep end here, I’m simply comparing what I think is a bit like progressing up the social marketing hierarchy.

I recommend that small business owners look at the following progression or hierarchy as they move deeper into social marketing tactics. So, jump in, but do it in this order and don’t move on until you have the basics of each stage down and working for you.

  1. Blogging—the foundation of the pyramid—read blogs, comment on blogs, and then blog. This is the doorway to all other social marketing.
  2. RSS—Aggregate and filter content around subjects, and use RSS technology as a tool to help you repurpose, republish and create content.
  3. Social Search—Often ignored in this discussion but I think it’s become very important for small business owners. By participating, you can stimulate and manage your reputation here.
  4. Social Bookmarking—Tagging content and participating in social bookmarking communities can be a great way to open up more channels to your business. It can also generate extra traffic, but it takes work.
  5. Social Networks—Branching out to take advantage of the potential prospects you might find on sites like Facebook or MySpace will frustrate—at least as a business tool—if you don’t have many of the above needs met. These networks take time to understand, and thrive on ideas and content. You’ve got to have much to share if you wish to build a business case.
  6. Micro—I’ve lumped some of the more experimental social tools into the edgy trend of micro: social, real-time communication that will likely only confuse most small business owners. The confusion is not because they can’t figure out how to make them work, it’s just not obvious why they should spend the time. I believe Maslow suggested that self-actualization is a place most might never reach. In social marketing terms, Twitter, Plurk and FriendFeed might be some sort of sick transcendence.

Case Study: They Don’t Use Social Media in My Industry
Many small business owners still think they can take a pass on the power of online social media tools, particularly if they reside in seemingly low-tech industries like plumbing, fishing or lawyering. I want to share a quick interview I had with Jason Brown, 23-year-old co-founder of Brown Lures. That’s right, they sell fishing lures to guys and gals that probably don’t call hanging out at Web 2.0 conferences a good time. (I’m just guessing on that though.)

Brown credits his blog with changing the way people find him. He created a podcast that gives him great “fishing stories” and loyalty from guides up and down the Gulf Coast. He uses RSS and content tagging to automatically produce fresh blog content, and e-mail marketing to blow his competition away at trade shows. Using social media in industries that are still slow to adopt it is the killer competitive advantage.

In Brown’s words:
“We have been running waiting lists for products for about a year now, and no one has any clue how we are doing it without spending big advertising money. I love this stuff …”

Alas, I can still hear the cries from the cynics—We don’t need no stinkin’ social media, we just need more sales.

This excerpt is reprinted from Let’s Talk: Social Media for Small Business © 2008 by John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing. Sponsored by Microsoft Office Live Small Business. All rights reserved. Download the full free e-book here.

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