And now for something completely different…

Continuing with the guest posts we have Matt Saunders of Northern Web (web design and marketing) with a post about social networks and businesses. This is a step away from the usual public sector / online stuff I post but a change is as good as a rest (and I’m having both right now) so have a read and look at things from a different angle! (and also check out my disclaimer page if you haven’t already).

Social Networks And Their Place in Business

I frequent the LinkedIn.com’s Q&A section on a regular basis and last week, I found an intriguing question: “Are social networks key to improving customer relations and product development?”

This prompts an interesting discussion into whether companies should use social tools to promote their business online, and if so, how exactly they should do it.

In short, I believe that yes, companies should be making use of these tools. Nearly everybody has Internet access now, and the social platforms that exist are sophisticated enough to segment user groups for targeted advertising. In effect, we’re now being fed information based on our interests which leads to less annoying adverts and higher conversions for businesses. This is social networking at its base level.

To truly harness its power, you need to delve deeper. Tools such as Twitter can be used to interact with prospects/customers, websites like Digg can be used to share information and Facebook is the place where everybody talks.

And talk people do. Your online reputation and, ultimately, your company’s reputation rests on how you use these tools. You have a platform on which to deliver information directly to your customers – great! Just make sure you don’t hit them with the hard-sell all the time; engage with the community on an almost personal level, dropping your opinion in from time to time and sharing links to informative websites and blogs. Essentially, give them a reason to listen to you.

In turn, you will receive their feedback and reviews of your business. The results will be far better than any questionnaire you could send out. Social platforms allow you to gander much more feedback than you would probably expect, because it allows you to “spy” on what people are talking about. I’d be surprised if any medium-large organisation doesn’t search its company name daily on Twitter to see what people are saying about them. They can then act on this.

I attended a talk by Julian Sambles from the Telegraph a few months back and he was tasked with boosting the online presence of the traditional newspaper. This meant a massive shift in thinking, at every level in the company, was required to be successful. He talked of how they utilised social bookmarking links, and how they explained to the readers what they were; he said how microsites have been used to promote specific offers and how article headlines differ from online to the paper publication (think SEO keywords).

This, as far as I am concerned, is proof that not only is the Internet crucial for business success, but utilising its many social assets can help boost your growth by interacting with your customers on a more than seller/buyer basis.

This article was written by Matt Saunders, owner of Leeds-based digital agency Northern Web which specialises in intelligent and responsible web design and marketing solutions. Sarah will resume blogging as usual next week.