Social Networking and the Business Incentive

by Terry Goodwin

"Advertising is propaganda for proper geese" - Kingsley Martin

The different networks that constitute that vast hybrid animal that is known as social media has always been a challenge and an incentive to commercial forces.

What are the advantages?

The availability of a vehicle for consideration, consultation and comment by a limitless audience is plainly irresistible to a business enterprise that wants nothing more than the opportunity to extend the reach of its publicity.

It means also that traditional marketing tools, particularly those involving the use of personnel, may now be enjoyed in a vast amphitheatre where existing and potential customers are being met as equals, even as friends.  This provides the opportunity to advertise products and services, deal with all aspects of customer service, handle public relations, even recruit staff.  Personnel involved in this way may be assured generally of a reception given to friends rather than to tradesmen or suppliers.

Any business worth its salt considers the needs of its customers and recognises that failure to satisfy those needs will result in a loss of business, probably to its more aware competitors.  Revealing yourself via social media provides an visible identity and a much more pleasant form of interaction with customers.  The customers-qua-friends identify the company with you.  And it's so much more enjoyable to question customers in a social environment via Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn than by letter, email or telephone.

The other spin-off is that of loyalty.  Being associated socially implies that you are less likely to lose customer faith and respect on those occasions when, otherwise, you might have to struggle to regain ground lost through mistakes of delivery or quality of product.  A friend is more willing to forgive a mistake than is a customer.

But is this ethical?

It all depends on how you define "ethics".  If you have a pre-determined intention to cheat, dupe or deceive your audience, that is pretty clearly an unethical stance.  If this is not your intention, but you are nevertheless aware of the possibility that your audience may be deceived, then it probably is less than ethical.  If, however, your intentions are made clear in advance, then the degree of ethicality is moot.  It will evidently vary according to the composition of the audience.  A business offer, or a commercial pitch, to an audience of well-educated adults will require less regulating than a similar proposal to a group that is less well educated.  And the same approach would almost certainly be unacceptable to an audience of children.  Unhappily there are too many examples on social media sites of educated adults being treated as uncomprehending children, while children are too frequently exposed to advertising that might be inappropriate even for adults.

It also depends on the medium that is used for the "pitch".  There is a distinction - not always too clear, unfortunately - between the audience on LinkedIn [generally intelligent adult], Twitter [very wide-ranging, but normally adult] and Facebook [universal, but frequently very young].  There are many other sites, of course, but since similar differentiation could be made, let us simply examine these three in a little more depth.

Three Examples

Facebook is a very informal networking site that is currently the largest in the world in terms of membership numbers.  It has been in existence so long and is so wealthy that it ought to be the most innovative of all social media sites.  Alas, its very size militates against its effectiveness for use as a business medium.  Unless, of course, you are going for paid advertising, in which case size is paramount.  But that is not the aim of this article.  You are reading this because you want something for nothing - or at least for less.

You can start posting messages that advertise your product/service as soon as you are a subscriber to Facebook, so long as you keep within the conditions of use applied by Facebook.  [If you are a supplier of inappropriate products, a purveyor of porn, for example, what are you doing reading this article?  Get away from here immediately!]  This will, however, be largely ineffective unless you can ensure that enough other subscribers (a) want to locate your announcement, (b) are able to locate your announcement, and (c) are sufficiently intrigued to respond to your announcement.  But you can improve your results by, for instance, creating a group dedicated to your product.  And you can make the group attractive (in the sense of magnetic) by ensuring that it will appeal to the customers you most want to reach.  So you can tie the group to a product, to a chronological age, to a geographical region, etc.  Actually, given those three examples, you could actually start three groups, each one of specific appeal to each of those categories.

This group facility is similar to possibilities available on the other social media sites, although there are some basic differences.  Nevertheless, one factor is common to all; in order to attract the greatest numbers of potential viewers, you should join other groups.  This way you will more easily attract members to your own group.  Membership of a group allows you to post messages that will inevitably reach those people you are wanting to contact.  But a word of warning here.  Groups, in the main, are facilitated by administrators who ought to be (although they often are not) alert to any possibility that membership is being used for other than its established (non-commercial) purpose.  So care is needed.  No blatant advertising will be permitted.  You will promptly be ejected from the group.

How is this overcome?  One way is by indirect reference to other sites where it is possible to see your service or product openly advertised.  Also it is permissible to propose an off-group exchange with individual group members whom you believe might be interested in what you have to offer.  There is, of course, no obligation on the part of such members to respond positively to your proposal  However, each connection made in this way will lead to other connections and other groups.  After all, this is why it is called networking! 

Let me hasten to insert here that these are not suggestions or techniques that are being proposed because I support them.  I am merely describing what is being done "out there" and it is as much a caveat as a suggestion.

A great deal of space has been devoted here to the use of Facebook for marketing purposes, but much of what has been described will be equally applicable to the other two sites in this section and will not need to be repeated.

Twitter is rather different in that it is more of a social messaging than a social networking site.  It is less about interacting in a group than about engaging with others in spreading your views and reading theirs using a maximum of 140 characters per tweet *.  The thing is though that within those 140 characters (although using up part of them) you can provide a link to considerably more information.  The tweet should be used for immediacy: what is happening right now.  The more generalised information should be reserved for the link.  The more amusing, unusual, and immediate the tweet, the more effective it will be; the more effective it is, the more "followers" you are likely to attract; the more followers you have the more tweeters you can access who are useful additions to your social or business-related field.

A comment I spotted recently on the internet was that "On Twitter, people talk about what they care about and whatís happening around them right now, including your business. This gives you powerful context to connect your message to whatís most meaningful to your customers in real time. Engaging with real-time Tweets can influence conversations in a way that can help build your business."

LinkedIn is a great professional networking site.  It is designed particularly for people wishing to engage in dialogue with others in similar industries, or to join a group involved in the same arena of business activity.  It is of greatest benefit to those professionals working on their own and operates on a "recommendations" system.  Your are encouraged to recommend others as being good at their job, or a specific aspect of it.  In turn they may recommend you.  A sort of "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours".  But it is amazingly effective as a way of expanding the circle of your acquaintances that are engaged in a similar activity to your own, or interested in what you have to offer.

In this way it is more appropriate to individual professional business activity than to a more generalised commercial company.  The majority of its members would seem to be people working in "one person" businesses, often from home, for whom personal recommendation is the normal channel for increasing business.  One is perhaps reminded of the Will Smith movie Six Degrees of Separation.

It is a more sober and serious networking facility than either of the previous two examples.  And it takes itself more seriously.  Unlike Twitter and Facebook where any member can submit requests to become a "friend" or a "follower", the desire to be a LinkedIn connection is subjected to an enquiry by LinkedIn, to ensure that it is a genuine and safe request, before being passed on to the member to whom it is addressed.  A connection is a person you know or would like to know more about.

Once a personal LinkedIn account and profile have been established, the member is entitled to add a company profile to the site.  The site does have some advertising matter, but it's far from being as intrusive as the other sites.

One of the ways in which LinkedIn is highly valued by its members is in the area of job recruitment.  Employment opportunities are regularly offered to members whose profile fits the job qualifications.  One way to ensure that you will be considered for the maximum of such offers is to have as extensive a profile as possible and also join all those groups that share your interests.  Be sure also to participate in group discussions in order to keep your profile in public view.

Summarising

For personal promotion, providing it is done appropriately between the required guidelines, Facebook is the best site.  Business, particularly that involving popular culture can also be pretty well accommodated by Facebook.  Again rules have to be followed, but they can be easily circumvented provided no blatant advertising is involved, or the exclusive use of a dedicated and approved Facebook group is set up and utilised. 

Twitter is suitable both for business and personal engagement.  The business content does, however, tend to be pop-culturally oriented.

LinkedIn would undoubtedly be the networking site of choice for serious business connections.  The emphasis being on the "serious".

As a rule of thumb, marketing via social media is no different from marketing via any other medium, so long as you operate within the specific rules and regulations laid down by the particular site you are using.  And even here, as I have pointed out somewhat cynically, there are ways of by-passing the rules or even turning them to your advantage.

But, of course, I would never, never, ever suggest you even contemplate such a thing.

And here's another piece of serendipity I picked up on the internet when bending down to pick up something else:

For as much as social media can do to help you grow your business, itís important to note the one thing it can never replace: a good product. With a unique innovation in place, which competitors cannot offer ó engagement will come naturally.


*  Tweet is the designation for "message" on Twitter.