Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to speak at several small business conferences. Many of the attendees had a great deal in common: They’ve been in business for several years and are quite successful, most of them worked in or currently own businesses employing fewer than 50 employees and a good number of them operate in traditional, “boring” sectors such as professional services rather than in the exciting high-tech industry.
Like their counterparts in much larger enterprises, small business owners constantly seek ways to increase awareness of their brand and expand their pool of prospects. Indeed, just about every survey on the concerns of small business owners ranks “finding, catching and keeping good customers” as the top challenges such business owners face. Many of these entrepreneurs use customer relationship management applications and services to address these challenges. They also expend a great deal of their business development efforts on time-consuming networking events, pumping out e-mail marketing campaigns and optimizing their Web sites to show up in Google search result lists. Yet few of them say these efforts have brought them closer to overcoming their brand awareness and expansion challenges. Enter “social media optimization,” or S.M.O., the concept of using today’s “social media” tools to reach a wider pool of customers.
When I ask my audience if they have considered adding a blog to their Web presence or creating a profile on LinkedIn, the business network on the Web, the vast majority responds that these are strictly social endeavors that would add little business value while wasting precious time. However, when I ask if they have ever read a blog, about half say they have. A good number of them even describe themselves as avid followers of more than one blog. All the blogs they follow are business-related, they say. They even admit to using some of the tips they read and e-mailing colleagues the links to many of the
blog entries. That’s when many begin to see how blogging can be valuable.
When I ask the audience if they have thought about creating a podcast, no one responds affirmatively. However, when I ask how many of them have purchased a business-related audio book, a good number say they have bought several. Since many of these also are iPod owners, it’s usually easy to get them to concede that listening to audiobooks on their iPods is not a bad idea.
Now the audience begins to see how podcasting, though more involved than blogging, can help expand the reach of their business.
I then ask my audience if they have posted any of the content of their Web site on a social networking site, such as YouTube, Flickr or MySpace. Most say they equate such sites with home videos and photo sharing, not business.
While not nearly as popular, Slideshare.net is more in line with business usage. Consider it the YouTube for Powerpoint presentations. Users can put together interesting presentations and upload them to Slideshare.net, where they can be viewed and commented on. I’ve already uploaded my own presentations to the site.
Slideshare.net even makes it easy for those who like your presentation to incorporate the same presentation into their blog or Web site. It also keeps a record of everyone who views your presentation. If your presentations become really popular, they can show up on the Slideshare.net home page, bringing even greater traffic to your site and potential customers to your business.
New ways of interacting with others have changed the way business is done today. According to the latest State of the Blogoshpere report, published by Technorati, the search engine for blogs, 100,000 new blogs are online every day, with the number of new blog starts doubling every 236 days. Each day 1.3 million posts, or 54,000 every hour, are written. Business- and information-based blogs make up most of the top 100 blogs on Technorati’s list. A recent article in Entrepreneur magazine says blogging is fast becoming a business staple. Several recent studies show that podcasting, though still in its infancy, already is having an impact on buying decisions.
Other social media tools include RSS (really simple syndication), a lightweight XML format designed for sharing headlines and other Web content; and wiki, server software that allows users to create and edit Web page content using any Web browser. By understanding the value of these tools, small business owners might be able to leverage the Web in meaningful ways in order to find, catch and keep good customers and remain competitive.
Brent Leary is co-founder and partner in CRM Essentials in Atlanta; host of the radio show “Technology for Business Sake” on Business Talk 1160AM and at www.BusinessTechnologyRadio.com;  and author of a blog at www.brentleary.com .