Turn Your Website Into a Social Networking Machine

Key strategies for tapping into your customer base

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globalnetworkMany people see online social networking tools as a fun diversion where individuals make friends, find romance, and locate long lost classmates. While it’s true that sites such as MySpace and Facebook have come to the forefront as “the sites to be on” for people looking to connect socially online, those two sites, and a myriad of others, have proven themselves as useful business tools for companies of all sizes.

One of the best aspects of social networking is that you can utilize the tool via an existing Web presence. In other words, firms don’t have to start from scratch online when they want to start taking advantage of this useful way to promote themselves, find new clients, and connect with existing customers.

“Social networking allows companies to engage customers on a deeper, more personal level,” says Kelly Cutler, CEO at online marketing and advertising advisory firm Marcel Media in Chicago. “It’s an important tool for all companies, no matter what industry they’re in.”

Here are five ways that you can start using social networking online right now:

Leverage Existing Assets

Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, Cutler says, who advises companies to tap the existing Website content and other assets when attempting to jump into the social networking fray. If one of your employees is already writing a weekly blog, for example, link it to a Facebook page where your existing and potential clients can access it. Or, if you regularly upload videos of your product demonstrations to your site, create a link to them through a social networking site such as LinkedIn, where professionals connect with one another online.

Make Your Site Interactive

If your Website is static and non-interactive, now is the time to upgrade to a newer edition. For social networking to be most effective, it must provide a way for customers to interact with your firm, Cutler says. Going interactive needn’t cost an arm and a leg either. The small, urban bookseller, for example, should provide a way for users to register on its site. “You can entice people to register by saving a book wish list for them, letting them write book reviews, or by setting up an online chat function for them to communicate with company staff members,” Cutler says.

Add Personality to the Network

When it comes to social networking, companies tend to get tripped up by the process of transitioning an existing brand or “storyline” over to an online environment, says Kyle Lacy, president at Indianapolis-based new media marketing firm Brandswag. To avoid this pitfall, Lacy says companies should avoid the “hard sell,” and instead inject some of the firm’s natural personality into the social networking activities. One way to do this is by putting employees’ and managers’ faces on the Web and backing it up with content that shows their true personalities. If a manager recently participated in a charitable event or attended a wine tasting in the community, for example, a few photos and captions can

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