Getting invited to a new social networking site is a daily occurrence for me now. New networks usually have a promising premise and often have a specific purpose, but they all face an online community that is saturated with startups. Part of the lure of social media for business is being able to connect with every interested party in one spot. Facebook and Twitter both do a fairly good job of offering this, but as thousands of other networks and bookmarking sites spring up the concentration of users is being spread thin around the fringes.
I would offer this piece of advice to social startups; target a specific need instead of a general audience. The critical mass that it takes to run a social network dedicated to bass fishing is equivalent to the percentage of the population who are bass fishing enthusiasts. If Twitter has 100 million users, and 2% are bass fishing enthusiasts, that means that having only 1 million users (half of active Twitter accounts are bots or automated business accounts) would make your network every bit as successful as Twitter in the grand scheme of things.
If I were a professional bass fisherman joining a network that was proportionally as popular as Twitter, but dedicated to my small market would be several times more efficient than spending my networking time on Twitter. On the larger networks users segregate themselves by location, interest, social goal or some other commonality anyway, but their interactions will still be sprinkled with dialogue directed at others who do not share your specific common ground. Compartmentalizing your networks with lists, circles and groups is a tactic to become more efficient, but to become truly efficient we have to go back to the beginning.
Prior to striking the first key you need to formulate a strategy. I recommend a round of brainstorming similar to what a writer would do. Make a list of
- your goals
- your strengths
- your weaknesses
- your targeted audience
- your prior experience that is applicable
- what social networks you already have a presence on
This will be the basis for everything you do from now on. It is likely that the social presence you have already built is relatively useless to your current goal set. That is quite alright because in social media the time you have in front of you after you have created a targeted strategy is twice as valuable as the time behind you that you grew your networks aimlessly. Your time is now like currency, and since money doesn’t grow on trees you will want to spend it wisely.
Where to Spend your Time?
I recommend setting up your base social media accounts now, or optimizing the accounts you already have. Every networker needs a personal Facebook account and a Fan Page, a Twitter account, a LinkedIn account and an account on Google+. You will also need a website based at a domain name to produce content on and display widgets that will help you reach your various goals and highlight your expertise and accomplishments. Use either WordPress or a content management system to set up a basic website. Most webhosts have auto-installers that do all the leg work for you, so basically anyone is capable of creating a website with WordPress. You can expect this to cost a minimum of $60 per year, but it’s a mandatory cost of doing business.
Include widgets for users to subscribe to your RSS feed, and include a way for users to subscribe to a separate mailing list that can be used for announcements and other content. Add social sharing buttons and quick links to follow you on Twitter or Facebook, and make the goal of producing a piece of relevant content at least twice weekly. The most important aspect of this website is to lure consumers you have targeted into connecting through as many available channels as possible. To maximize your connections:
- Make adding you as a contact as simple as possible.
- Place your Subscription and Social Networking Widgets above the fold.
- Keep it basic for now. 2 Subscriptions (RSS and Mailing List) and 2-4 networks.
- Make your site design clean and visually appealing.
- Be sure to include an “About Me” widget linking to a biographical page. The About Me page is one of the most popular pages on all websites, and is necessary unless you’re famous already.
- Do not use flashy gimmicks or play sounds.
Additional Networks and Widgets
In addition to the most popular networks and most universally used widgets, you should now consider your earlier brainstorming and select additional networks based on goals, strengths, targeted audience, and prior experience. If you are very attractive it is important to use that to your advantage. Pretty girls are over two times as likely to elicit engagement as average looking males. On a related note, men who are pictured in business attire elicit more engagement than men who dress casually. If your targeted demographic is punk rock musicians however, you will want to dress to your audience.
Are you charismatic or a good public speaker? If you answered yes, a YouTube account is a necessity. Video reminds users that you are real and has an inherent entertainment value that written words do not. It has a wider range of appeal and is now available to almost all users. If you are camera shy but can speak well, you may want to consider podcasting as a content medium. If you want to be successful in social networking you have to play off your strengths. You’re more likely to succeed if your interests and personality match both the content and medium.
When you listed your goals or prior experience, was photography included in that list? If it was, I would highly recommend Flickr as an additional network. Good photography and videography has a property that written blog posts and articles do not: the ability to go viral. Viral content can make your brand famous overnight, but the odds of producing content that will spread like wildfire are similar to the odds of winning the lottery. There are however ways to increase your odds, and the best way is to produce multimedia content that is prone to be shared.
Investigate, Listen and Search
You have set up a simple home base, produced a small amount of content to show you are active and to give users something to notice and share, and you’ve set up some basic networks to get started. Your first priority is to find the users and conversations that are related to your brand, industry and goals. Continuous conversations take place on online forums, in Facebook groups, on industry specific blogs and on the network pages of users who are thought leaders in your particular field. It’s easiest to start at the top and work your way down.
Once again I suggest making a list of the most influential people related to your industry that have a large digital footprint. A long term goal of your social media strategy should be to convert some of these power users into true believers. Networking is a work in progress, and trying to engage with a web celebrity when you have no following, aren’t familiar with online etiquette and haven’t entered the user’s circle is asking for disaster. First impressions are key, so wait until you can make a decent one before approaching a thought leader.
As you track users through comments of your thought leader’s profiles and web properties you will see how the influence of that single user pervades several smaller networks that may not even be aware who is influencing them. If you track in a linear path you could end up on a completely different part of the Internet in no time and cross several communities that are relevant to your industry and goals. Always take notes and write down recurring topics, note the lingo and etiquette. Users of the popular image board 4chan suggest that new users lurk in the forums for at least a year before making their first post. Internet mannerisms that each segment finds appropriate can’t be learned, they have to be absorbed. There’s no easier way to burn bridges than by committing a major faux pas in your first contact.
While you are listening to conversations and searching for ripe opportunities, keep an eye out for forums and user groups that have positive attitudes and professional demeanors. They will have less nuanced behaviors and will overall be easier to infiltrate. Also keep an eye out for communities that have some users who could be considered medium networkers. They may be connected with your power users, have followings of well over 1,000 and be considered trusted sources of information on a smaller scale. It’s a bonus if you can find some medium users who are upwardly mobile and publicly list some of their social networks.
Keep your Goals in Mind
It is easy to forget the reason you started networking and get drawn into a never ending chase, driven by vanity. Chasing numbers, re-tweets, absolution and validation. It is important to periodically remind yourself of your initial goals, and possibly alter those goals. As you grow online and become a powerful force in your niche, new opportunities will arise and after all, that is the underlying reason to network in the first place.
Online networking is sometimes time consuming, but if you’re smart about it and only dedicate the time you have to spend, it can become a valuable investment in your future. In this technology and service driven economy, it has never been more important for average people to have a strong online presence. If you haven’t started yet, do so now. If you have started, maybe it’s time to get serious about networking.