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The secrets of social media for business, revealed

Many companies want to use social media in business but don't know how where to start. Here are some keys to getting on the right path.

Clorox bleach struck social media gold by launching an online classroom with cleaning tips for moms. The site quickly became one of the top 10 trending topics on Twitter.

Fiskars, a 300-year-old Finnish maker of fine cutting tools, increased sales three times by creating an online community for craft enthusiasts and reaching a previously untapped audience.

General Motors bonded with its customers by introducing one of the first blogs written by a senior executive. The move resulted in goodwill toward the company, not to mention customer feedback that eliminated the need to spend $180,000 on focus groups.

Those are three of the social CRM success stories relayed by social media consultant and professor Rob Petersen in his e-book 166 Case Studies That Prove Social Media ROI. Petersen is also the president of BarnRaisers LLC, a digital marketing company based in Connecticut.

What makes these stories shareworthy is that the companies tapped resources less obvious than giants like Facebook and Twitter to succeed in the world of social media, which is something analysts say every company should be doing. These companies broke out of the common trap many organizations find themselves in simply relying on the most-used social sites as a method of outbound marketing.

Get a social media monitoring tool

Most people wouldn't walk into a conversation among strangers and immediately interject their opinions. According to social CRM analyst Brian Vellmure, the same goes for social media for business.

The first place to launch any social media marketing plan is to listen to what is being said about your company on social media sites, said Vellmure, CEO and founder of consulting firm Initium LLC/Innovantage.

A social media monitoring and analytics tool is critical to doing that. Some tools, such as HootSuite, offer fairly low-cost and simple social media monitoring for small and medium-sized businesses. Others, including giant Radian6, are far more costly but offer more robust features, such as sorting, scoring and ranking of customer data. Free services for monitoring exist, too, including Google Analytics or Google Alerts.

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Listening and analytics tools help companies understand what social media users are saying about them, help them tailor social media messages to customers, and ensure that information about what is being said about the company reaches the proper department.

"Facebook and Twitter are good communication channels, but you also need tools to analyze data from social media sites," said Denis Pombriant, founder of CRM analyst firm Beagle Research Group.

The importance of listening and analytics tools is evident by how quickly they are being acquired by CRM software companies. Software giants Oracle, Salesforce and Microsoft have all recently acquired listening tools.

"This space is in the process of getting consolidated," Initium's Vellmure said.

So, how do companies go about finding the right tool? Analysts recommend starting with a simple Google search. There are plenty of articles on the Web listing the pros and cons of various services and their prices. You can also consult a CRM expert for advice, or talk to other companies in your industry about what worked for them.

Join the conversation

Once listening has been established, it's time to join the conversation. But with the popularity of sites like Facebook and Twitter, some companies forget about less obvious forms of social media, analysts say.

"A lot of people forget that a blog is a social media product," Beagle Research's Pombriant said.

After falling out of fashion for a number of years, blogs are experiencing a renaissance of sorts, according to Brent Leary, co-founder of the advisory firm CRM Essentials. Blogging among Fortune 500 companies is at an all-time high, he said.

Some 34% of Fortune 500 companies have public-facing blogs in 2013, according to research from the Charlton College of Business at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. That compares with 23% in 2011 and 16% in 2008.

The tricky part about blogs, Initium's Vellmure said, is creating meaningful content. Developing content that resonates with customers is crucial, but many companies struggle to do so, he said. One way to solve this problem is to outsource blog writing, he added.

Other companies, Vellmure said, such as computer software vendor Lithium Technologies, are getting it right. Lithium chief scientist Michael Wu shares a tremendous amount of valuable knowledge on his blog, and the company's overall reputation as a vendor has improved as a direct result.

In addition to blogging, analysts stress the importance of joining online communities on topics relevant to the business. There are communities for almost any type of like-minded individuals, said Vellmure, from people who own boats in the Gulf of Mexico to women who like to stay home and knit sweaters.

"If a community [doesn't exist], for some brands, that's an opportunity to create one," he said. "If the community does already exist, listen and participate, just as you would at a cocktail party," without trying to dominate the conversation.

According to Beagle Research's Pombriant, companies can turn to resources such as Get Satisfaction or Communispace for help building communities that connect them to customers. These kinds of services can build communities that focus on service, support and encouraging customers to share ideas.

"All of a sudden, you've got a social channel doing some of your marketing for you," Pombriant said.

Branch out

There are hundreds of social media sites, but many companies are slow to move beyond the obvious ones like Facebook and Twitter.

CRM Essentials' Leary said he thinks Google Plus will catch up because it incorporates valuable business tools. The Google Hangouts feature, for example, allows up to 15 people to communicate at once over email, chat or video.

"I think a lot of people still don't truly understand what Google Plus has to offer," he said. "Facebook is more rooted in friends and family, and that's great. But Google definitely seems to be more focused on traditional business interaction."

Visual social media sites such as Instagram and Pinterest are also growing in popularity for business use, Leary said, particularly in industries like retail, which rely on visual marketing. He pointed to The Tie Society, a monthly subscription service that allows users to design and order ties, wear them as long as they'd like, then trade them in for new ties. The service uses pictures on Pinterest to drive membership.

According to Initium's Vellmure, other companies are finding success using podcasts or infographics as a part of a social media strategy. No matter which social sites and tools you use, analysts agree that the most important thing to do is to put together a plan before diving in.

"Without a plan, you're going to go to Facebook and Twitter and think you've got everything covered," Beagle Research's Pombriant said. "But you won't."

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