Columnist Steve McKee explains why experimenting with free Web tools and using them to promote your company or forge connections makes sense
YouTube (GOOG). Flickr (YHOO). Digg. Metacafe. Stumbleupon. Technorati. Del.icio.us. Kaboodle. Fark. Furl. Swik. Mixx. Are social media tools like these the future or simply new ways to waste time? Can't we slow this train down?
Unfortunately, we can't. But if you think about it, we don't want to either. The Web is a vital source of innovation, and it levels the playing field between small businesses and corporate giants. The only problem is keeping up with the pace of its rapid (some would say rabid) advances. Taking advantage of all the Web has to offer is like eating your vegetables or getting exercise—most of us don't do enough, and even those that do could always do more.
The first thing I want to encourage you to do is relax. Take a deep breath and release that tightness in your chest. This column isn't about making you feel stupid for not knowing what Reddit.com is, or chastising you for not having three extra hours a day to spend tweeting and blogging. I simply want to encourage you to get started. (For background on social media, check out this story.)
The Price Is Right
Activity in this universe has thus far been dominated by innovators and early adopters. But now that the early majority is getting in the game (with the late majority right on their heels), the numbers are starting to swell. Facebook, the most popular of the social media sites, has nearly 200 million users worldwide. LinkedIn is like Facebook for professionals, and more than 30 million of us have signed up. (Disclosure: LinkedIn has a partnership with BusinessWeek.com that includes a tool that lets users find LinkedIn connections at companies mentioned in BusinessWeek articles.) And Twitter—not even three years old—tracks thousands upon thousands of instant message "tweets" every day. That spells significant opportunity—whether your customers live around the world or across the street, you can find a lot of them online.
The biggest reason to use social media is that it's free. You can be a significant player online without laying out any cash, and in this economic environment cash is king more than ever. It does take time, though, and in business time is money. But getting up to speed on social media is like learning to ride a bike; it's difficult and intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of it you can get where you want to go quickly—and even enjoy the ride.
Think back 15 years or so, to when you first heard of the term "Web site." Your first thought was probably "What's a Web site?" quickly followed by "Why would I ever need one of those?" Now, of course, some of the tiniest mom-and-pop shops in the farthest corners of the world do business on the Web. You probably had the same reaction when you first discovered blogs, text messaging, and even e-mail. Many of today's flavor-of-the-month social networking sites will go the way of the dinosaur, but the medium is here to stay.
Jump Right In
The key to getting on top of social media is not investing a fortune on expensive new initiatives. They key is to get your hands dirty. Pick a site, find a spare hour or two, and sign up. Experience it as a user, and observe how others are using the site. Only in doing that can you come to understand not only how it works, but how it might relate to your company. As outlandish as it may appear at first, there's probably an application of it for your business.
Let me give you an example. I'm not an early adopter, but I do have a Web site and blog, I use text messaging frequently, and have Facebook and LinkedIn networks. I had been hearing a great deal about Twitter, so I decided to spend part of a recent weekend getting up to speed on it. At first I was lost, but before long I figured out what the community was about and how I wanted to develop my network. I even made a business connection my very first day that made the investment of time more than worthwhile.
Interestingly, I found that, unlike me, most of the people now on Twitter would fit the "early adopter" category; when I searched for a wide variety of clients and other professional colleagues, most of them weren't there yet. But with that small investment of time, I now have one more social networking tool in my repertoire. And I now know how to fit it into my business practice in a way that isn't overwhelming or intimidating.
Dividends Within Weeks
If you were to take on, say, one social networking site per month, by the end of '09 you would be ahead of 90% or more of your peers (and your competitors). And it would have the added benefit of helping you relate to the emerging workforce for whom all of this is second nature. If you do, I'm convinced you'd have at least one new customer, product idea, or other business-building asset to show for it within weeks. Give it a try. Pick a site, log in, and get started. If you find me there, introduce yourself. I'll be happy to show you around.