Is Social Media Worth the Investment?

If you are like many professionals, you may be waiting for the dust to settle around the Web 2.0 frenzy before deciding if social media is right for your firm. You may not be sure what to make of these unfamiliar tools. And you may be a little skeptical that social media is relevant to your business. What do these tools really offer you, anyway?

In fact, there are a lot of good reasons for professional services firms to break into the web 2.0 space. But let's set a couple of things straight upfront—social media is not going to answer all of your marketing challenges. And it's not a particularly efficient lead generation tool. Referrals, networking and list-based marketing are still your best bets to deliver fresh leads. But if you want to develop and qualify existing leads, these tools can be remarkably effective. And if you want to increase your firm's visibility and brand awareness without investing in an expensive PR campaign, social media is hard to beat.

What is Social Media?

Social media is a collection of online tools that allow people to interact and exchange ideas. In some cases (such as video), it provides a more compelling, human dimension to your website. In other instances, social media allows you to communicate with and stay in front of a large, interested audience. The value of this exposure can be difficult to measure, but its not hard to see how it can benefit your firm and build its reputation.

Social Media Tools: Your Best Bets

Of the myriad social media tools available to business professionals, three offer significant potential to enhance your professional services firm's marketing. Don't expect instant results. Like so many marketing initiatives, social media takes time to work. But if you get started now and put in a reasonable amount of effort, you should see some results by next spring, if not sooner.

By now almost everyone's heard of blogging, and most of us read at least one or two blogs a week. It's everywhere, but if you are like many of our clients there's as very good chance you're not doing it yourself. There are a couple of mental obstacles busy professionals have to overcome before they jump into blogging. The first is technical — what's the right tool to use? The second obstacle is the time and effort required to keep a blog going.

Which tool should you use? That one's easy — just pick one and get blogging! Any of the major free or inexpensive services — Blogger, Typepad, or WordPress — will serve you well. A lot of companies use these hosted services with great results. They are easy to set up and quick to learn. After you are comfortable in the blogging environment and you want to create a more seamless brand experience, you can invest a little money to host your blog on your website. But that's not a requirement, by any means.

Will you be able to keep your blog current? That depends on you. No question, blogs require time and dedication to maintain. If you can only manage an entry every few weeks, you simply won't engage your readers enough to be worthwhile. When you first start, try to publish one entry per week. Then as you gain experience and confidence, add a few more entries to your schedule. Many bloggers blog one or more times a day. We don't think that's necesssary. One to three thoughtful entries per week should be enough to demonstrate your expertise and keep your readers engaged. If you are too busy, find someone else in your firm to help carry the load. Having multiple points of view can make the reading experience richer and conveys your firm's depth of expertise.

Blogs give you a voice you never had before. You can tell people what you are thinking, show your readers how you react to relevant business news, or provide real-world advice. The format is up to you.

Of the many social networking sites available to you — such as Facebook, Xing, and MySpace — LinkedIn is mostly likely to be of real value. LinkedIn is a free social networking service that caters to over 24 million business people worldwide. It facilitates the process of building and maintaining business contacts. Once you are a member you can invite anyone to connect with you, ask happy customers to recommend you, and build a rich network of referral sources.

Professionals use LinkedIn in a surprising number of ways: to solicit referrals, find highly qualified job candidates, reconnect with old business acquaintances, perform reference checks, and refer potential work to other qualified friends and businesses (see this blog entry from Stephan Spencer for more examples).

LinkedIn is a valuable service that can take as little or as much time as you are willing to give it. But if you are willing to make a modest investment of time, the service offers tremendous opportunities to expand your firm's marketing universe and automate the management of your business contacts.

Online Video
A recent white paper from Cisco Systems predicts that Internet video will increase dramatically over the next three and a half years. By 2012, the amount of video available online would take a person 500,000 years to watch! Granted, a lot of this video will be commercial movie and television content, but more and more businesses are adding video to their websites. And we believe the business videos you see online today are just the tip of the iceberg.

Businesses are using web video in a lot of interesting ways. Some stream video right on their homepage, telling their story with drama and high production values. More often, firms use video to present client or staff testimonials or messages from their CEO. Compelling video case studies are appearing more and more frequently as well.

The move from traditional text-based communication to video makes a lot of sense. The medium simply is better at conveying the emotional side of a situation; people relate instinctively to real people telling real stories. And video provides a welcome break from text-heavy websites. In a world of webinars and YouTube, people are used to watching video. So what used to be a novelty now is understood as a legitimate and appealing alternative to text-based communications.

Social media is making serious inroads in the business community not because it's trendy, but because people are recognizing its potential. As long as you understand the medium's limitations, social media can help you communicate your firm's value in new ways to new audiences. With the exception of video, these tools require little or no investment — so there's little reason to hold back. If you are unsure, talk to your colleagues and plan for a short-term commitment. Then plunge in — it can be more fun than you might think!

Other Social Networking Options

We've covered just three social networking tools in this month's issue. But there are many other options you may want to explore. Here are a couple other popular technologies:

Microblogging is blogging's tiny, tiny brother. Microblogs are limited to very short and usually frequent posts. Twitter is the best known example. Right now, we don't see a lot of value in microblogging for professional services firms. But we're keeping an eye on microblogs as professionals find new ways to use this tool in their businesses.

You already know Wikipedia — the world's largest and most popular encyclopedia. But many companies uses wikis to build collaborative online work environments — in which a group of people can contribute content, edit it, or comment on an existing posting.


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