A social network is a type of virtual community, however whereas most traditional virtual communities were based on the content and information discussed (communities of interest), the revolution of social networking places relationships at the centre of the communities. Social Networking services (SNS) are more about people and their relationships than connecting content itself.
- A virtual community is a forum of exchanging information about common interests. They provide a sense of place and belonging based on those shared interests. Often they develop into congenial and stimulating dialogue between the members and much interesting information can be shared, even leading to more extended relationships in some instances.
- SNS is typically distinguishable in that they are about relationships - they allow a more detailed personal profile to be developed, they tend to allow members to articulate a list of 'friends' and they tend to allow members to navigate and peruse others' list of friends. In this way members can find others through their extended friends networks - friend of a friend (FOAF).
Key points for businesses using Social Networks
1. Dedicate time to your social networking
Social networking and engaging with members on message boards is cheap. The chances are that the places your customers spend time socially online are free services. The main cost of engaging with people through social networking is time. Like any meaningful engagement with your offline community, truly engaging and understanding any online network or community takes time. This isn't something that can be scheduled for the first or last hour of the day. Ideally it's not something that one person in your business does alone - generally the more of your staff that engage, the better the quality of the engagement.
2. Find your context, spend time with your kind of customer
Social network interactions depends on the culture of the online community you're engaging with. To learn how the people in your area of interest engage with each other on social network sites, you have to spend time there but first you must find out where they like to spend their time online. Search for Facebook groups and pages that your kind of customers might engage with. Follow Twitter accounts of interest and figure out what hash tags are consistently used by your kind of customers. For any SNS or community you're engaging with, figure out how that community talks, how they interact with the website and you'll learn what binds you all together.
3. Display your expertise, reply with relevant content
Social networking for businesses can be a delicate balance. Many businesses over-use SNS for overt (and covert) marketing, which isn't a useful long term strategy. Leveraging the relationships that you make in SNS to make sales and contacts is perfectly acceptable, but it must be done in ways which fit with the culture of the SNS you're engaging with. In a nutshell, it's about context. Watch and listen to the people interacting, 'follow' and 'like' your kind of customers to find your context. Reply with advice and information, supporting it with evidence wherever you can. Display yourself as an expert in your area. When you're becoming known for giving quality information it becomes much more acceptable for you to suggest your product or service as a suitable solution.
4. Multitasking and alerting
Some people tend to schedule parts of their day to catch up on emails and spend the rest of their time purposefully ignoring email to concentrate on other tasks. If this works well for you, use the same method when engaging with social networks. Most SNS let you elect to be emailed when an update or reply happens, outside of that give yourself time to scan your feeds and react to any relevant messages. I tend to work with multiple browser tabs open at any one time so I tend to have social networking accounts open in pinned tabs and check on them multiple times during the day.
5. Track your campaign engagements
While tracking your number of likes and followers and such will give you a general sense of how popular your SNS interactions have become, when you expose any campaign to SNS engagement be sure to track it just as carefully as any other channel, setting the utm_medium variable with a meaningful name. An interesting way to track more individual efforts such as replying to an SNS post with a link to one of your product pages, would be to consider your SNS engagement as an ongoing marketing campaign using tracking tags such as utm_campaign=sns&utm_source=wallpost&utm_medium=facebook. If that makes no sense, check out our guide to tracking emarketing efforts using Google Analytics.
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