Social Networking 101 For Businesses

I went to an interesting event last night -- and it wasn't just for the

I went to an interesting event last night — and it wasn’t just for the “Tweetinis” (blood-orange infused vanilla vodka martinis). This was a pow-wow on “Social Networking 101,” sponsored by the Financial Communications Society, featuring speakers from Conde Nast, General Electric, Edelman and the New York Post. This was supposed to be a small event, but when the RSVP list doubled in size, the organizers moved it to a larger space at a Wall Street Journal office in midtown. Everyone, it seems, from big multinational corporations to media players to small companies, are trying to figure out what to do with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Flickr and anything else that a fruity cocktail will soon be named after.

The big question: How does a business use these social-networking sites?

No one answered that question precisely, but some of the take-aways from the panel:

Remember back in the mid-90s, when everyone was talking about what to do with the Internet? (Evenutally, companies figured out that websites were a business imperative.) The explosion of social-networking is much the same. “You have to accept that this is happening,” said Josh Stinchcomb, executive director at Conde Nast digital. “And you have to figure out how to play in this space.”

Along those same lines, companies also have to realize that “Google is every brand’s homepage now,” said Steve Rubel, a senior vice president at Edelman Digital. In other words, people search Google first when trying to find you or your product or service — and might stumble across a dissatisfied customer’s complaints before anything else.

For that reason, an increasing worry for any company is damage control, said Rikin Diwan, online business development associate at the New York Post. To counteract negative comments, businesses need to breed “loyalist” consumers who will become “champions of your brand,” he said.

How to breed loyalists? Well, try social networking (yes, it’s circular). Gary Sheffer, executive director of corporate communications for General Electric, said it’s frustrating when people post online comments about GE - or any of its many divisions — that he has no ability to control. “It does freak me out,” he said. But at the same time, now he’s got far more outlets to do his marketing or PR. “Whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or a story in the Wall Street Journal,” he said, “if I can get a message to an audience that is more customized, that is a good thing. I’m excited about this.”

Want to share how your business is using social-networking sites? Post a comment here.

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