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Online social networking unravelled

With the constant development of Web 2.0 media, harnessing the marketing potential of online social networking sites has become a hot topic in business circles. With more than 70% of 15-34 year olds part of a social networking community, the potential value for advertisers cannot be overlooked. However, the marketing possibilities of these online communities aren’t solely restricted to advertising; canny use of social networking, and immersion in the networks built, can reap major business benefits.

Defining the Trend

Although attitudes are beginning to change, the concept of online social networking has not yet escaped connotations of teenagers with too much time on their hands. As a result, this largely misunderstood and invaluable resource can be overlooked by many companies.

In business, networking can only be beneficial. Online social networking can be defined as a web medium that makes it easier to meet, identify and pool resources with other people, whether that’s friends, colleagues or clients. Opening significant new communications channels, social networking is not a passing trend and by no means should its impact or potential rewards be underestimated.

Clear Advantages

Online Social Networking allows businesses to create a useable community and meaningful relationships, relatively easily and – importantly – at no cost. Invaluable networks can range from existing customers to potential clients and colleagues.

Creating a profile on sites such as Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn allows users to create a face for the company and build relationships. Personalising a brand or company instantly makes it more accessible to its target audience. Becoming a ‘friend’ of clients and other contacts enables you to mine their ‘friends’ list for potential useful contacts or even prospective clients. Online communities can easily snowball, maximising exposure and increasing brand awareness. With constant development to increase the usability of sites, it couldn’t be easier to keep customers up to date on events, promotions and other news.

Making it Work for You

Selecting the site that will be of most value to your business is vital. Remember to think about your aims – what you hope to get out of online networking, and also your target audience. Research which sites would best achieve your objectives by reading the information sections and getting a feel for who uses that particular site and how they interact. Sites such as Facebook and MySpace offer definite marketing opportunities to the younger market, whereas professional social networking groups such as LinkedIn, can help build a bank of useful industry contacts.

Getting started is simple – all major sites outline step-by-step guides to creating a profile. Before you upload a profile, however, it is important to define and manage the public image that you would like to promote. Whether you decide to create a fictional character to represent your company online, or a more solid employee profile, it is essential to remember that it will embody your company’s values, acting as a mouthpiece on an ongoing basis. So, brainstorm key messages and presentation guidelines before you get going.

Once online, frequently update your profile with blogs, images and social interaction to attract a steady stream of relevant and knowledgeable users who will become familiar with your product or service – and ultimately develop an ever growing network. Remember that online social networking is not a one way medium: you must develop an equal relationship, or risk switching your new contacts off. To put it bluntly, the only way to see any real return from online social networking and drive traffic to your site is commit to an ongoing online presence.

A word of warning, though. The message you convey is equally as important as regular submissions. Whilst it’s vital for your company’s online profile to remain professional, simply pushing sales will be instantly transparent to a savvy online community. Instead, think about brand values and sew these messages into topical, witty or incisive posts, which don’t necessarily relate directly to your business – but maybe instead to the wider sector as a whole.

Advertising values

Another great way to utilise online social networking is to consider the advertising potential that it holds. Through a filtering process it is possible to target specific demographic groups by age, gender, location, and interests, allowing you to gear advertising campaigns to reach your exact target audience for the promotion, and gain the ultimate return on investment.

A growing trend

Social networking is only a small part of the Web 2.0 phenomenon, but it is certainly not a passing phase. Instead it seems set to grow and grow; therefore it is essential that businesses become comfortable integrating it into their normal practice. As what is ultimately a free tool, and one that is relatively easy to use, the obvious advantages to using online social networking cannot be ignored.

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