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Social Media: Changing How Partners Do Business One Post At A Time

There's more to social media than just having a company Facebook account. Although businesses' use of social media is on the rise, how they're using it is changing, with small businesses finding new ways to leverage social tools to get a leg up over the competition.

From Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to company blogs, community sites and forums, businesses' use of social media is on the rise, according to a recent survey, and it's changing the ways partners engage with their customers, with many small businesses leveraging it to get a leg up on the competition.

Sarah Coish, marketing and communications manager at Vision33, an Irvine, Calif.-based SAP partner, said she definitely thinks growing businesses are taking more advantage of social media today.

"It's a cost-effective tool that gives a wide, open platform for growing business where traditionally they would have required a large advertising spend to have their message heard," Coish said. "We have a strong inbound marketing strategy that's been successful for us as an SAP Partner, and social media is a key component of that."

[Related: Cisco To Partners: Use Social Media -- You Can Bet Your Competitors Are ]

Though the company is present on various social media platforms, including Twitter and LinkedIn, its main driver of content is its blog, according to Coish.

"Our blog is the central hub of our social media strategy and producing really relevant content that helps drive our target audience back to our website," Coish said. "We answer questions and repackage the content through social media. Our referral traffic has grown significantly this year as a result of the blog and LinkedIn and led to a higher conversion rate on our corporate website."

While some channel companies have taken a more hands-on approach to social media, others are still testing the water in terms of focus and strategy.

Jane Linder, managing director at NWN Corporation, a Waltham, Mass.-based systems integration company, said its social media use is more "ad-hoc" at the moment, as they "wade in" and experiment with different strategies.

"We don't really know what the goals are for us yet, [but] conceptually the goals are absolutely clear: to be in conversation with our customers and our business partners," Linder said. "In a way, social media for us is a conversation, and any way the customer wants to talk to us -- we're going to listen."

Over the course of the last five years, social media use in a small-business setting has rapidly expanded, according to Constant Contact, a Waltham, Mass.-based engagement marketing solution company for small businesses.

In its May 2013 survey, the company found that 87 percent of the 917 small businesses surveyed currently use social media as a marketing tool -- compared to 10 percent five years ago.

Mark Schmulen, general manager of social media at Constant Contact, said adoption of social media marketing has been "very much in line" with consumer use of the networking sites.

"If we look where five years ago Facebook had somewhere between 50 and 100 million users [and] today Facebook has over a billion users worldwide," Schmulen said, "it's not a surprise to see more and more businesses have implemented social media."

NEXT: The Challenges of Social Media For Small Businesses

In fall 2011, 81 percent of more than 1,500 small businesses surveyed across the U.S. reported using social media as a marketing tool, up from 73 percent just six months prior, according to Constant Contact's Fall 2011 Attitudes and Outlook Survey.

However, Dan Kraus, president of Leading Results, a Charlotte, N.C.-based marketing consultation company for small businesses, said that while almost all of the 250 small businesses it's worked with over the past three years are using social media, the term "use" can be broad.

"For some people it's simply a matter of 'I have a LinkedIn profile, and I'll try to keep it up to date;' they might have a Facebook, but they don't really do anything with it; they might have thrown a few videos on YouTube, but that's it," Kraus said. "I think the percentage of small businesses actively using social media as part of their marketing strategy is about 10 percent."

The reasoning behind this lower percentage in small businesses stems from two places, Kraus said: the amount of time required to actively maintain a social media presence and the uncertainty behind its results.

"Part of the challenge of social for a small business owner is that it takes a lot of time and they don't know what they're going to get out of it," Kraus said. "The ones that are doing it actively are spending time on LinkedIn, participating in groups, and are doing things that get people involved."

In the company's exploration of different social media sites, NWN's Linder also cited LinkedIn as a good way to reach out to customers in the business-to-business market.

"There are people looking at us on Facebook, and we can track that, but LinkedIn is a better [forum for customers]," Linder said. "It's hard to quantify the other side, but you know as a whole all those [marketing] touches and that rich communication with our customers makes a difference."

Despite the challenges of social media use for small businesses, Constant Contact's Schmulen said they are beginning to see the value of the two-way communication available through social media.

"[It] is a great way to connect and build deeper relationships with existing customers, and it's a great way to meet new customers through sharing," Schmulen said. "When they engage with you, their friends see that engagement, [and] it's that peer-to-peer recommendation that has such a big influence on consumer behavior."

David Ryan, marketing director at Chesapeake Systems, a Baltimore, Md.-based Apple VAR, said that although it may not be a priority for some small businesses, social media is an important aspect of doing business in the 21st Century.

"I'm very much a believer that online marketing is essential these days. Unless you have more clients than you can handle, then you need to be involved in online marketing," Ryan said. "I believe that there needs to be an in-sync strategy to make online marketing successful. There's nothing new here. ... You have to make a value proposition and answer the questions of the customer."

NEXT: How Businesses Can Best Utilize Social Media

The added value of using social media to connect with those customers, Ryan of Chesapeake Systems said, comes from a shift in the process of introductions.

"The whole ability today and advantage is that you can turn what used to be cold calling into a process of warm connections," Ryan said. "The best way to make a connection with a person is to give them something for free. As a reseller, we have to bring added value [in the form of] our intellectual firepower in both consulting and designing."

Just having a social media presence isn't enough, however; successful use of networking sites for a business boils down to an integrated system of connected newsletters, website SEO and use of networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook, all powered by the engine of the blog, according to Ryan.

"None of this works if the website and the blogs aren't strong. That's why the content has to be compelling," Ryan said. "Once you have that core, then it comes down to helping to distribute that. The blogs and podcasts are top for us [in that regard]."

When first starting out with social media, Schmulen of Constant Contact recommended businesses pick one network to become familiar with in the beginning.

"What it really comes down to is if you start with one, it shouldn't be that hard to join the rest," Schmulen said. "For most businesses, the best place to start with is Facebook. That seems to be where most of the conversations are going on, at least with consumers."

Even for companies already familiar with several social networking sites, it's important to have a focus and not spread the content too thin, according to Kraus of Leading Results.

Most businesses can only manage about two social channels with any kind of consistency before other platforms become an "also-ran," or a secondary project that doesn't receive the required attention, Kraus said.

"When I'm talking to business owners, I tell them to understand the social channels their clients are on and spend your time there," Kraus said, "because you really can't be everywhere."

One thing to remember about social media is that it's about having a conversation, and businesses need to listen as well as respond, Constant Contact's Schmulen said.

"Because it is a two-way conversation, you need to monitor what people are saying and make sure you answer in kind," Schmulen said. "When someone hits you up on Twitter or LinkedIn or Facebook you need to make sure you respond in a timely fashion. With social media, you can't set it and forget it. You can't just expect people to come to you. You have to tell people about it and then engage them."


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