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Finding the right social engagement

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Connecting with a community of your customers through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter may help you increase your online presence, but are you ready to become an active participant? Expanding your marketing efforts to include these “Web 2.0” options takes you beyond merely presenting information, straight into a public two-way conversation.

Facebook ranks as the social networking site with most traffic, drawing 74 million unique visitors in January, second-place was MySpace (53 million), and Twitter came in third with about 8 million.

While social networking can help you tap directly into what your customers are saying, “You have to give up a bit of control,” says Dawn Foster of Fast Wonder Consulting in Portland, who advises companies on strategies for engaging with online communities where everybody has a voice. “What companies struggle with more than anything else is how to manage the communication about their brands on these sites.”

When Martina Degliantoni, a principal at Portland PR firm Conkling, Fiskum & McCormick, looked at blogs about her client, the Tillamook County Creamery Association, she found two unofficial fan groups. In response, the company created an “official” Tillamook Cheese Facebook page last year, invited the 750 existing fans to join, and now engages with 6,900 fans and counting.

Additionally, Tillamook rolled out its own fan club page in November, and is working on phase two of that site, which will incorporate a social networking component in June. “Because our customers have such an emotional connection with the brand, it is important to be a part of the conversation and let them know we’re listening,” says Degliantoni. “We have an online community manager and we monitor conversations about Tillamook hourly.”

If you can’t commit the resources to manage and monitor social networking sites and provide fresh content for your audience, you may want to hold off on creating your own pages for now, says Foster. Also, be sure you can answer the question: Whose job is it anyway? “You have to have time carved out for people to achieve your objectives,” she says. “Otherwise, you end up with abandoned accounts, and that can be embarrassing.”

If you are ready to commit to maintaining a business presence on Facebook, create a “group” or a “company page” where people can become a “fan.” Then, as on Twitter, do more than just tout your products and services, which will turn people off. Participate as part of the larger community by discussing industry trends, or asking employees from outside marketing to post information, suggests Foster.

The important thing is becoming — and staying — a part of the discussion. Once you become comfortable with the process you can determine how social networking fits into your marketing plan — and budget.

JENNIFER L. HANSON

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