What’s the deal with Social Networking?

If you are not living under a rock and do not rely on the “Trash Heap” to give you the latest news of the day, then you have probably heard the term “Social Networking”. And while it is all the buzz on the internet, many people are unsure of what it is exactly.

So what is Social Networking anyway? Well, Social Networking, in general, occurs when individuals interact with other like-minded individuals in a social setting. But the definition of the term has morphed somewhat in recent years to refer more specifically to Online Social Networking which is the same but with a (cyber) kick. Online Social Networking occurs when these same individuals come together through various member access mediums to chat, share photos and generally connect online. There are many things online that can be considered to be social networks but for the purposes of this article we will confine the definition to connecting with individuals through things like Facebook, Twitter and Linked-In.

Ok, I get it but so what, isn’t that stuff just for teenagers? Well, not exactly. Although many of the largest social networks initially catered primarily to high school and college students, times they are a changin’. Now you will find a great cross-section of society getting involved with social networking because of how convenient it is to stay in contact with friends and family along with re-connecting with old friends that you lose touch with over time. The median age of your average social networker has been steadily climbing over the past few years. In fact, in 2008 social networking outstripped email in overall reach with 66.8% of internet users accessing member communities online compared to 65.1% for email.

So what does this really mean to you? Well as a business owner, you have an opportunity to take advantage of all this virtual water cooler milling. Make hay while the virtual sun shines. With the proliferation of these groups and their ever-increasing depth of connections to others, your message can go viral in no time at all. And the SEO potential is staggering. If you can reach one person at any of these online watering holes, that message can potentially be carried infinitely as well as being picked up by your favorite search engine with yet another golden link to your website. Think back to your favorite shampoo commercial. You get one persons attention and they’ll tell two friends and they’ll tell two friends, and so on and so on…

So how do I do it? The key to effective social networking, like with may other things, is planning. If you come up with a solid strategy for your business or product, you can hit them over and over without them even knowing it. And remember, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. The best part about social networking is that the networks themselves can interconnect to reinforce your message. Make sure that any strategy includes multiple points of contact.

As I stated before, there are a number of popular social networking sites out there but I will focus on some of the most popular:

Facebook is the quintessential social networking site. Anyone who is anyone online is on Facebook in some way shape or form. Any business or product can set up what is known as a Fan page on Facebook. It is essentially an online profile for you business that allows you to post messages, upload photos, share success stories or even have discussions with clients and potential clients. It can be like having your very own conference room in the ether where you can post the latest information about your products and services or share your success. And the best part is that when you post a link or even just make a statement about your business, it automatically shows up in the news feed that your “fans” spend their time with every day. It is a great way to keep top of mind with current and potential clients.

Twitter is a micro blogging platform that allows you to send updates to your “followers” 140 characters at a time. It does not seem like much, but it is enough to drive traffic to product information, blog postings or to inform “followers” of events. These quick postings are called Tweets. It is used by many as a means of communicating what they are doing “right now” but as a business medium it is growing daily to help connect businesses with potential clients, value added resellers and vendors.

Linked-In is the only one of the networks I have listed that was specifically intended for business use. You can add a complete profile about you and/or your company and then you can connect with people you have worked with in the past or present. The people in your network can then connect you with people in their network who are looking for someone in your field. The connections can get pretty deep so it kind of becomes like the 6 degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon but with potential business connections and who knows, maybe even Kevin Bacon himself.

Now that you are setup with your accounts, don’t simply rely on Linked-In,Twitter, or Facebook alone, use them in concert to make your messages sing. There are applications available that will allow you automatically post your Facebook Fan page status to your Twitter account (or vice versa) and Linked in will also display your tweets. And if you really want to melt your brain, set up a blog and set it to update Twitter, which can then update Facebook and Linked-In thus allowing you to post a single piece of content related to your business and have it reach multiple levels of people on multiple networks all at the same time…now talk about a Breck Shampoo moment.

The biggest thing to keep in mind when developing your Social networking strategy is that you have to update regularly to see any impact form your efforts. Social networking is not a fix it and forget it type of meal. This is the type that requires a candy thermometer and patience while you stir and stir to make sure that it doesn’t get scorched.