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How SMBs Can Optimize their Social Networking Time, Part 2

Carrie Hill
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In Part 1, we talked about how using Twitter with all of its features and tools can help you expand your network and engage with people buying your products or services. Today, I'll give you some tips for finding and participating in local and niche forums in an effort to become an authority on your industry.

The first step is finding out what's going to work best for you. If you offer a service in a particular industry and area, then finding related forums for your city or state is probably your best bet.

If you're a general contractor in Colorado, you should join the Associated General Contractors of Colorado forums and offer help and assistance in your area of expertise. Their traffic is already qualified, and you'll be able to help and gain visibility right away. I found that particular forum by searching Google for "General Contractor forums Colorado."

If you're in a service industry, such as a hotel or restaurant, you're in luck -- there are a ton of places for you to participate. TripAdvisor forums are probably the most effective and targeted, but there are several places where you can interact with potential customers.

Many resort or destination cities already have forums in place for you to participate in, and many U.S.-wide sites have regional and state-specific forums. A search for "Outer Banks North Carolina Forums" returned results for Frommer's Travel Guides, Outer Banks Vacation Guide, Destination360, and TripAdvisor. All of these feature threads that are dedicated to people looking for vacation accommodations in the Outer Banks. If you offer accommodations, you need to engage with these people.

So we've found a lot of places to participate, but what's the best way to do this without alienating your potential customers? You need to learn the art of the "soft sell."

Suggestion is a powerful tool, and being very helpful without badmouthing your competitors or constantly expounding the virtues of your own business is an art form. Here are some ideas for promoting your business in a forum without being "pushy."

  • Pick a user name that promotes what you do and where you do it. An HVAC installer in Chicago might use ChicagoHVAC, whereas a hotel in the Outer Banks might use OBXHotelier. Any person you help in that forum will see your handle, and know what you do.

  • Utilize your profile or forum signature. Many forums have strict rules about putting links or promotional language in your signature, so be creative:
    • "If you need help finding accommodations in the Outer Banks send me a private message and I can help"

    • Don't place a link but do include your domain name i.e. CorollaClassicVacations.com instead of CorollaClassicVacations.com

    • Consider including your e-mail or phone number. If you truly want to help people, responding to a few people you can't help will be worth the calls you get from people you can help.
  • Follow up with anyone you've helped in the forum and make sure they had a rewarding experience with you, or even your competition. Making customers and potential customers feel cared about is one of the key factors of engagement marketing.

  • Don't badmouth anyone if they chose to go with your competitor and had a horrible time (bad karma and a bad idea). Simply offer your services should they ever need them and promise you'll do whatever you can to make sure they're well taken care of.

The key to any type of social networking and engagement marketing is to stay involved and follow through. If your time is limited, then limit your involvement to one or two sites. Do what you do very well and you'll be rewarded.

As a side note, I can't complete this article without mentioning the valuable links and search results saturation benefits you might receive from forum profiles to your Web site. A search for your brand can and will return your postings and profiles from those sites on which you or your brand participates. The more results you control on the first page for your brand, the more likely you are to push negative mentions or comments down the results list -- that's powerful stuff!

Engaging with your forum friends and providing excellent customer service is a phenomenal way to build a little army of brand evangelists. They know where to go next time, they know where to send their friends, and they know where to find you when they need help again.


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