Not that long ago, this blog raised many eyebrows when it flagged the notion of Facebook being a new kind of Yellow Pages.
Not in terms of searching for suppliers. Google has that base well and truly covered.
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And not even in terms of displaying targeted business advertisements – clever as their behavioural targeting capabilities might be.
The reason Facebook, and to some degree Twitter, is a new kind of business directory is that it has become a kind of ‘opinion engine’ – a platform for consumers to find products and services and then, once consumed, discuss their merits.
The word-of-mouse plague
Where once word-of-mouth made its way around the consumer world at the speed of individual conversations by phone or in person, now this vital component of our promotional mix is bouncing around the internet at unprecedented, breakneck speed.
Since its inception, social networkers have been doing three key things when it comes to businesses. They’ve been:
- Telling their Friends about their good, bad and ugly experiences with products and services
- Asking their Friends for recommendations of pretty much anything from tradies to travel experiences
- Posting reviews of products and services they’ve tried on third party websites
As more and more consumers come to understand how social networking works, this ‘word of mouse’ has reached plague proportions.
Mixing business with pleasure
A quick perusal of my immediate personal Facebook News Feed as I write this tells me that of the last 20 posts by my Friends, 10 discuss a product, service or entertainment topic.
So half of my Friends comments are naturally and without solicitation providing word of ‘mouth’ for a business.
On top of that, there are the products and services I have voluntarily Liked who are posting information about their attributes or experiences. I’d estimate that one in ten of my inbound posts is provided by a business.
This doesn’t include the four or five advertisements that appear on my News Feed pages at any given time, which are appearing as a result of my profile and the topics I am discussing.
What this adds up to is a virtual torrent of product and service information at my fingertips. And all part of everyday online discussion.
No business is spared
The ramifications of this now standard way of communicating with consumers for business are significant and important.
1. Perform like never before
First, we must all get on our toes when it comes to delivering a quality product or service. If we do, we will get the massive benefit of ‘positive viral’. If we don’t, we can very quickly become the victim of its opposite, negative viral. The worst part of the latter is that you may never even know it’s occurring as it appears locked behind the private pages of social networkers and hence you never get a chance to respond to it.
2. Monitor social networks for calls for recommendations
As you read this, social networkers are asking their Friends for recommendations of the very product/service you provide. It’s obviously impossible to be across the millions of posts that occur every day. But monitoring key social networking Groups (like local business chambers and their ilk) can provide you the opportunity to respond to these calls before your competitors do.
3. Drive your Facebook (et al) page with regular content
Your business Facebook page allows you to grow a willing band of fans and communicate with them for nothing more than your time. Apart from improving your relationship with them, you can also conduct some very useful marketing activities like conduct market research and run discounts and promotions. What’s not to Like?
4. Experiment with advertising
Because you only pay when people click on your ads, advertising on Social Networks is relatively affordable and flexible. It’s worth trying a campaign or two to see how well this impressive form of targeted advertising might work for your business.
Businesses who sell to businesses instead of consumers needn’t feel left out either.
Most of the above rules apply to them too – if not in consumer social networks then more in the professional or business networks like LinkedIn.
But one thing is for certain. Social networking isn’t going away in a hurry.
And it’s something that smaller business operators ignore at their peril.
Craig Reardon is a writer, educator and operator of independent web services firm for SMEs, The E Team.