Linking up online Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2009

Social media is more than just another buzzword. It’s a tool that can enrich your company culture, build your company’s online presence and help you reach new customers.

“Social media is transforming how companies run their marketing and communications initiatives,” says Mark Fiala, adjunct professor at University of Phoenix’s Cleveland Campus. “While it’s tempting for some to think it’s a passing fad, these tools have become so widespread so quickly that they’re not going to just fade away. Savvy companies that get into it right away will have a competitive advantage. If you can get out there early or even first, you’re going to be in a better position than someone who is trying to jump in later.”

Fiala incorporates new social media techniques into his curriculum, focusing on teaching students how to use social media in a way that is relevant for business.

Smart Business learned more from Fiala about how you can use social media to reach new customers and prospects that previously didn’t even know your company existed.

How can companies use social media to strengthen their cultures and stay connected to their employees?

For their internal cultures, they can use sites like Facebook and LinkedIn to build a community among their own employees. It’s also very valuable for building your candidate pool — people you’d like to attract back to the business And since hiring quality employees is so critical for any company’s long-term success, every advantage you can have in attracting high-quality employees is important.

But it is also another communications tool for your current employees. You can never over-communicate to your employees. Facebook and LinkedIn are tools your employees are using. Communication is all about being understood and reaching the people with whom you want to connect. If they are on Facebook and LinkedIn, you need to be out there as well if you’re going to connect with them, along with the other things you do through e-mail and newsletters.

How can companies use social media to connect to customer communities?

Your customers are spending more and more time on LinkedIn and Facebook. It’s a bit like retail; if that’s where the people are, that’s where you should be, too. A social media presence on these busy Internet communities helps build your awareness with your customers and prospects and gives them a connection to your business they might not have otherwise.

The key is doing things that make the customer feel special. You can send a notice saying you are thinking about a new product or service launch and you’d love to hear opinions on it, so please post a comment. That accomplishes a couple of things. It helps validate what you’re trying to do, to see if it makes sense from a marketing standpoint. Second, it builds connections among your clientele. It gives your customers that exclusive ‘inside-the-club’ vibe, and people get to know one another.

Third, it’s simply a powerful way to get people talking about your business. The more people talk about your business, the more they are going to patronize it. My Facebook page, for instance, allows me to indicate where I am going to speak next and makes connections to my blog. It gives you all these avenues to upload documents and information,whether it is a new brochure on a product offering, a video of a speaking engagement, or something you find elsewhere that might be relevant to what they need. It’s a platform for you to build expertise and credibility in front of the whole world.

How can busy executives incorporate social media into their business?

It does require you to do things differently. Fifteen years ago, if you told people the first thing you do in the morning is open your e-mail, some people thought they didn’t have time for that.

Now, we all know the first thing many of us do when we get to work is check our e-mail. The next thing for more and more of us is to go to LinkedIn and Facebook and see what has been posted. You have to prioritize how you will engage with that during the day. You just have to find the right amount of time for you to work it into your day.

If you’re trying to use social media to further your business and professional objectives, don’t be one of those people who posts every two minutes ‘I’m eating lunch,’ or ‘Here’s a picture of my cat’ — that type of post. You have to respect peoples’ time and give them something valuable. That’s the key.

If you’re offering information of value, you are getting your company’s name out there. Some of it may turn into new business; some may not, but at least you’re building your online presence.

Should business owners use Facebook and LinkedIn differently?

They are two separate environments, of course, but I think they are going to converge in a few years. When you are in business, you are building a personal brand and a company brand in many cases. So your Facebook account, while it may be more social or personal now, is going to start to look more like LinkedIn and vice versa. People are going to get tired of doing the double work of updating them.

A business owner needs to treat Facebook like a business tool. Keep what you’re doing business-oriented and leave the links to bizarre sites and political opinions out unless that’s the kind of business you’re in. It takes a certain amount of discipline to approach it that way.

Mark Fiala is an adjunct faculty member at University of Phoenix’s Cleveland Campus. University of Phoenix, the largest private university in North America, serves a diverse student population, offering associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs from campuses and learning centers across the U.S. as well as online throughout the world. University of Phoenix’s Cleveland Campus serves students online and at locations in Independence, Beachwood and Westlake/Crocker Park. To learn more, contact University of Phoenix at (216) 447-8807 or (800) MY SUCCESS or www.phoenix.edu.