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Get Social…And Grow Your Business

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If you think social networking sites are synonymous with unflattering Friday-night photos or connecting with a long lost love, think again. More and more business owners and marketing professionals are using Facebook and other sites as viable ways to connect with potential customers online.

That was the topic of last week’s Irish Internet Association’s annual congress where I had the privilege of speaking to hundreds of their members. Taking place in Croke Park, Dublin, the IIA’s theme was ‘Beyond Websites: Business Uses of Social Networking and New Media’.

The IIA is a highly dynamic association. For a small country like Ireland, the IIA counts 5,000+ paying members, mostly small and medium sized businesses using or looking to use the Web to help grow their businesses. The IIA puts on events and workshops across the country on topics as diverse as ‘Making your Web strategy pay’, ‘Writing for the Web’, ‘Measuring campaign success online’ – you get the idea. Our team has looked for equivalent associations in our other Western European countries, but so far we have found no other that is so focused on helping SMBs get more out of the Internet.

There is tremendous interest from SMBs in leveraging the reach – and leveling power – of the Web to compete more effectively, better market their products and services, and engage their current and future customers to build loyalty and earn repeat business.

Attended by more than 400 IIA members, I would categorize the sessions at the annual congress in three main buckets:

1. Presentations from industry insiders,

2. Case studies from businesses active in the social web already, and

3. Breakout sessions on relevant sub-topics hosted by service providers.

The overwhelming feedback I received directly and indirectly was that people got by far the most out of the case studies and hearing from businesses who are learning by doing.

Using Dell as a case study example, we are actively engaging our customers in the social Web to resolve issues, solicit ideas on IdeaStorm, share content and insights, or communicate on what’s going on at Dell. It was clear – during the Q&A portion of my keynote and in conversations afterwards – that many attendees were positively surprised to see a large company like Dell innovate and commit to this new medium in this way. As I explained, Dell’s success was built on direct customer relationships, and the emerging social Web is a fantastic way to extend this model and get closer than ever to our customers.

Another case study that had everyone talking was completely on the other end of the spectrum, presented by Barry Meehan, co-owner of Worldwide Cycles. This is a 2-person business in South-western Ireland, catering to cycling enthusiasts. Their shop is located in a rural area and does not benefit from a lot of drive-by exposure. Barry and his business partner Ray sponsor and participate in local races, coordinate training groups, and in the course of doing so capture many pictures, videos, and stories. So Barry decided to start a blog for the shop to share all of this with their customers and create an online community of local cyclists. He indicated he blocks 2 hours every Monday morning to contribute to the blog. This has been an immensely successful undertaking for Worldwide Cycles. It has put a face and a voice on their business, and has helped them attract cycling enthusiasts and customers from far outside their previous radius, as well as build loyalty among their existing base. Barry shared some people will drive all the way from Dublin to buy their bike or supplies from his shop, and now that their store is eCommerce enabled they get orders from all kinds of places. An online order was placed last week from Italy for a €3,000 bicycle. When Barry posted a video on the blog showing how to clean your bike after a race, he saw sales of the cleaning product he used in the video quadruple almost overnight!

All in all, the key message at the conference was clearly that the social Web holds enormous promise for small businesses. It gives you access to easy and inexpensive – often free – tools to dramatically extend the reach of your brand without a big marketing budget. You can easily connect directly with customers and prospects, and create a rich level of intimacy and transparency.

If you’re not blogging today, give it a try. Ask your customers what they’d be interested in, what they think you should do better or different, invite them to converse with you and watch how eagerly they’ll take you up on it.

 Update: Podcasts from all the presentations at the IIA annual congress are now available online.

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