By Rich Brooks, President, Flyte New Media

 

What is Social Media? 
Like any emerging idea, the definition of social media is still a little blurry around the edges. And, like that other popular Internet pastime, social media may be something that is difficult to define, but you'll know it when you see it.

 

Social media is an umbrella term that includes interactive broadcasts such as blogs and podcasts, as well as social networking Web sites. These Web sites often allow visitors to become users or members, create profiles, and upload and share content through the Web site. There are hundreds--if not thousands--of social media Web sites out there, but here are a few of the more popular ones:

  • Facebook: One of the fastest growing social media sites out there. It started as a site just for college students but is now open to everyone. Although it has fewer members than MySpace, its growth and buzz is enough to make Google nervous.
  • LinkedIn: This networking Web site allows you to create a profile and connect with colleagues, give and get recommendations, and find people outside your immediate network for new opportunities.
  • MySpace: Originally a place for bands to promote themselves, it has become one of the most popular sites on the Web today. Anyone can create a profile and there are no identity checks. Companies targeting consumers often set up shop here.

As you travel outside the U.S., there are plenty of other social networking sites that are more popular in other parts of the world.

 

Why Should You Care About Social Networking Sites? 
Location, location, location. If you had a retail outlet you wouldn't set up shop where there's no foot traffic, would you? Well, your customers and clients are already at social media Web sites. They're on MySpace, they're LinkedIn, and they have Facebook pages. They share photos at Flickr and upload family movies to YouTube. You need to go to where your customers are.

 

How Do You Get Started with Social Media? 
Don't worry: every person and every business had to make a first, tentative step into the social media landscape. This won't be any more painful than a freshmen mixer or a Business After Hours event in a strange town. (Yikes!)

  • Look
    With so many social media sites out there, you may want to do some investigative work to find out where your best customers are. Since these sites offer free memberships, it only costs you in time to join multiple sites.
  • Listen
    Once you've joined, listen to the conversations around you. Each site may have its own mores, but generally people don't want you storming into a conversation to tell them how great your products or services are.
  • Join In
    Once you feel comfortable with your surroundings, feel free to join in. Just don't make it a sales pitch. Find a group that you can participate in. If you sell dog products, find and join dog lovers' groups.
  • Start
    If you're feeling really daring, start your own group, and invite current clients and colleagues to join in. A real estate agent might start a group focused on the local area (restaurants, schools, taxes, etc.), getting local business owners and residents to join together.

How Do You Succeed with Social Media? 
Let me share a secret with you: I don't know. Using social media as a marketing or networking tool is in its infancy. What seems like a good idea today may turn out to be a bullet point on "The Top Ten Mistakes Businesses Make with Social Media" tomorrow.

 

In addition, like a lot of marketing endeavors, the results may be difficult to track. Did that lead come from your Facebook profile, your blog, or a newspaper ad you took out? You can certainly sit back and wait for your competitors to make the first move and learn from their mistakes. But while you're on the sidelines, they'll be making connections and building relationships with your prospects. Are you willing to take that chance?

 

In Conclusion 
The social media rules are still being written. Where does social networking end and commercial networking begin? Is this the future of the Web, or just another evolutionary step? Will today's social media leaders be around tomorrow, or will some other interrupting technology crash the party?

 

The only thing that seems certain is that people are congregating at these social networking sites at an astounding rate. The landscape is changing, and these sites have become the backyard fences, the coffee shops, and the street corners of the 21st century.

 

Ignore them at your own risk.