One of the biggest issues facing small businesses is the growing influence of social media networks. These online communities are changing how customers gather information, share their experiences, and even engage in the sales process. Liz Marchant takes a look at some of the issues that you need to consider.
The sheer numbers of active membership in online social networks are extremely hard to ignore. When 750 million people do anything all at once (like being on Facebook as at July 2011) there are consequences. (Not to mention the 200 million people on Twitter as well). So where exactly does social media fit in with business?
Social media is redefining customer engagement in a big way. The whole point of social media is that people share. And they share their favourable experiences and their unpleasant experiences – instantly. People post tweets on Twitter and status updates on Facebook in real time. And great experiences (and not so great) can go viral within minutes.
Real Estate businesses that monitor what’s being said about them at least have a chance to be part of the conversation – and be seen to be trying to solve problems, offer suggestions, or get involved in useful conversations with prospects who seem to be interested in the type of property they sell or manage.
Some companies have even taken it a step further and have set up their own social media channels to provide mobile-ready information to their customers and prospects in real time to help them stay informed about everything from inspection times, new listings and to answer queries on the fly.
We’re still a way off from conducting property auctions on Twitter, however, there are plenty of other ways to interest prospects using social media.
People searching for properties and property services are on Facebook, so advertising to people who meet your demographic requirements is worth considering. Facebook’s advertising engine is continually growing in sophistication which continues to help advertisers target prospects more accurately.
Similarly, Twitter can offer excellent avenues for presenting new listings and other information that would be of interest to your market, for example, links to new government property regulations or breaking interest rate news.
Prospective investor clients (who may be looking for an agent to list with) are increasingly likely to do their homework online first. That means seeing how well you represent yourself online, your accessibility and responsiveness (which will include your interactions with social media), as well as what others say about your firm in online discussion forums. The old adage of ‘a business with no sign, is a sign of no business’ holds particularly true online.
The obvious advantage of having a strong online presence is that it creates additional search engine results when people search for terms that relate to your areas of specialty.
The more relevant content you have online (including on Facebook, Twitter, discussion forums and other online properties) the more prominent your online profile will be.
As an aside, consider ensuring your website works well on all the popular mobile (smart) phone operating systems. It is one of the most popular ways people interact with the Internet and is growing exponentially. If your site does not load on a mobile device, then people may move on quickly to sites that do as their first preference. People are both busy and mobile, and their expectations are increasing constantly when it comes to their online business experiences.
Social media governance
Social media governance is soon to become a significant consideration for business. At the moment, the boundaries between what people do in their home and what they do in the office are reasonably clear – but they are blurring by the day thanks to social media.
Social media governance is a program or process that puts a supervisory and risk management structure in place to manage how employees represent themselves online. Essentially, it is about protecting individual and business reputations by providing policies and frameworks that govern how social media is used.
Even if you still think social media is not relevant to your business, it is still one area that is hard to ignore. Here are a couple of common and problematic examples.
Your company puts on regular drinks for staff and key contractors. One of your team takes photos on their phone of several of their colleagues “under the weather” and posts and tags them on Facebook. Privacy is infringed, reputations may be damaged, and the pictures are now part of the permanent digital record (even deleting them will not necessarily get rid of them). Who is at fault? They were work drinks. It was an individual’s phone, but the data plan is paid for by the company. They used the company wi-fi network to post the images from their smart phone. It was on someone’s personal Facebook account.
One of your staff uses their private Twitter account to badmouth a client. The client works out it is one of your staff and demands you take action. The staff member says it was their private account and what they do in their own home is none of the company’s business.
You can see how quickly black and white turns to mud. While legal precedents are still thin on the ground, companies should be thinking about their possible exposure and consider some preventative steps. These typically consist of three parts:
*First, write a social media policy that outlines what is acceptable to your company when it comes to social media use. Consider that most people are already engaged in social media, and are not simply going to stop using it because you said so. They have it on their mobile phones and their home computers. Instead, offer advice about how best to represent themselves and your company online, and be clear about problem areas like breaching confidentiality and defaming people. Employment contracts and the law already generally govern these issues, but many people forget this when it comes to social media.
*Second, write guidelines that show people examples of what works well in social media networks and what does not. Many employees are still becoming familiar with social media and most will welcome some ideas about how to be more effective in its use.
*Last, provide training and give your team a chance to learn how to manage and use social media properly and to participate in real life scenarios where they can ‘test’ the companies social media policies and also their own decision making. It will flag to staff that social media engagement needs reasonable consideration before making posts.
Social media is a fascinating social phenomenon, and there’s no evidence that it is going away any time soon. The opportunities for companies that use it to their advantage are many. Developing the skills required to be proficient in understanding and using social media is fast becoming a significant business priority as more and more businesses come off the fence and start engaging.
Liz Marchant is a director of Recognition PR, Write Away Communication + Events, and Outsource. Liz regularly consults on social media policy, guidelines and best-practice implementation programs as well as integrating social media activities with sales and marketing programs. Follow Liz on Twitter @LizMarchantSyd.