For most smaller business operators, social networking for business still provides as many quandaries and queries as it does opportunities.
I mean what do untold posts worshipping teen idols and suggesting best kissing techniques have to do with anyone’s business?
But those in the know understand there’s much more to social networking than this public face suggests.
One of the most valuable aspects of the medium is the ability to gain qualified opinions on any business subject you care to name.
Not so much among your own friends and connections but in one of social networking’s better kept secrets, groups.
More gold in groups
Unfortunately Sensis’ otherwise comprehensive recent report on all things digital and small business, the annual eBusiness Report doesn’t touch on the number of smaller business operators participating in business groups, but I suspect that it is still quite low – perhaps 10% of small business operators.
These groups, predominantly residing in Facebook and LinkedIn, are full of experienced business people and professional experts who are more than prepared to provide their advice completely free of charge.
There are groups on pretty much any topic you care to name, though those in Facebook tend to be looser and less qualified than the more formal professional groups in LinkedIn.
Often there are highly specialised groups; for example, digital marketers or environmental town planners.
All kinds of experts
The advice they provide might range from trademarks and intellectual property to improving your Google AdWords performance.
In fact it can be any business issue at all.
Finding these groups is easy. Simply go to your social network of choice and conduct a search for the category of business you are interested in. A list of relevant groups and a short profile (including number of members) will result.
From there you just apply to join. Some will admit you immediately, within others it will need to be approved.
A search of groups in LinkedIn containing the words ‘Small Business’ yielded nearly 8500 groups
A free business lunch?
Why do they do provide this professional advice if there is no payment involved?
For some, they are just happy to be able to provide the benefit of their expertise or experience, either knowing they are helping a fellow business operator or that at some point they too will need to call on some expertise themselves.
For others, it’s a valuable and free opportunity to secure the ‘poster’ as a new customer or position themselves as an authority in their field or ‘thought leader’, knowing that hundreds or even thousands of potential customers might be reading their response.
Since engaging with different groups some five or six years ago, I’ve had all manner of business questions answered, most with excellent results and most saving me considerable time, money or inconvenience.
Expertise and profile building are just two of the benefits groups provide. Potentially more valuable are responding to calls for supplier recommendations, the ability to gain free market research and – subject to the rules of the group – straight promotion of an offer or discount you are providing.
But we know there’s no such thing as a free lunch, so what are the negatives of so much group engagement?
Traps for new players
The first is time. Because these are conversations and not just one-off comments, you can expect to dedicate time to adding your contribution to the conversation, just like you do in real life.
All this group engagement can quickly eat away the hours in your day.
The second is vested interest. I’ve been involved in conversations in groups and found they can quickly be overwhelmed with people pushing a certain methodology or viewpoint.
Unfortunately it’s way too easy for those pushing their own agenda to notify their special interest group of a conversation in another group to make their point look popular and well supported.
Like all advice, it’s wise to check the credentials and motivation for the adviser’s comments.
But these challenges aside, most report their experience in seeking expert opinion to be positive and valuable.
What business challenges could you do with some free advice on?
In addition to being a leading eBusiness educator to the smaller business sector, Craig Reardon is the founder and director of independent web services firm The E Team which was established to address the special website and web marketing needs of SMEs in Melbourne and beyond.