Don't Be Afraid of Social Media -- Your Customers Aren't

In the history of the Web, social networks are relatively new. But they represent a land of opportunity for those that are nimble.

As a company, you don't necessarily need to be the first to move, so don't feel like you've completely missed the boat if your company hasn't done anything to address social media. Sometimes it's prudent to sit back, and watch and learn from some of the more nimble players in the space.

In social media, small businesses are sometimes the best to watch and imitate. Many of them have already waded in and learned some valuable lessons from their successes, and their mistakes.

SEO for Facebook

Imagine if you were a mortgage lender and could go back in time to 1999 and optimize your home page for the query "Low Finance Rate." Would you do it? Of course you would. Well, the same opportunity exists today in social networks.

For example, imagine the owner of Cathy's Creative Mugs (a fictitious small business) wants to post a fan page on Facebook; essentially a company "promotional flyer." When prompted by the Facebook interface to name her fan page, she begins to type "Cathy's Creative Mugs," but then realizes she can probably leverage SEO best practices here. So, instead, she names this page "Coffee Mugs," which is a rich keyword for her industry.

This will help Cathy for searches on "coffee mugs" within Facebook, as well as her rankings in the traditional SERPs. While Facebook links are supposedly "nofollowed," and don't pass link juice, they're still showing up in the SERPs.

While you can benefit from watching, you'll need to get up off your pinstriped tush soon, as the social networking bus has definitely started to pull out of the station. Companies that still think they control whether they "do" social networks or not are terribly mistaken.

If you're a large brand, you can rest assured that conversations, pages, and applications have already been developed around your brand by the community at large. The community is "doing" even if you choose not to.

John Deere Mows Over Facebook

Want proof? Let's take a look at a Web 0.0 product like a lawnmower. If you perform a search in Facebook for "John Deere," you'll see the following:

  1. There are more than 500 groups dedicated to John Deere.
  2. There are more than 10,000 users in the Top 10 groups.
  3. All groups were developed by the John Deere community; not John Deere corporate headquarters.
  4. Their chief competitor, Caterpillar, has a page in the top 10 listings.
  5. A group called "John Deere Sucks!!!!" is ranked in the top 10.


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This is a great example, because it showcases the following:

  1. Your users will take ownership in your brand and will "do something" in social networks (both positive and negative) even if your company chooses not to.
  2. This has huge potential -- 10,000 users in the first 10 groups alone -- kudos to the power of the John Deere brand.
  3. Your competition and your users can leverage a trademarked name to their advantage.
  4. Malicious postings ("John Deere Sucks!!!!") can show up high in the rankings if you don't have more favorable listings to push it down to insignificance.

Who has the power now: John Deere, or the kid who posted the "I love John Deere" group? The kid has the power. After all, what's to stop this kid from posting a nice static image of a special offer for Caterpillar on his site? Money talks, and this could be a cheap purchase for Caterpillar to a highly target audience.

Many of these constructs are similar to SEO best practices. The person who works the smartest will win here.

Sheep Without a Shepherd

Another reason a company may decide to do nothing? They don't want to aggregate their hard-earned customers in a public forum because they're afraid the competition will come in and pick them off.

This might be a valid concern, if your brand fans and enemies in the social networks weren't doing anything without you. But, as evidenced by the John Deere example, they're "out there," mobilizing around your brand, so you need to join the conversation. Also, if your customers are that easy to pick off, then you have much bigger issues.

Some of these concepts are difficult to grasp, but when you choose to do nothing, it's analogous to the following:

A shepherd (company) is watching over his flock of sheep (customers/users). A fence breaks, and the sheep suddenly have access to play in a new pasture (social networks). More than a few wander into this new pasture as it has a lot to offer.

The shepherd (company) is uncertain about what to do and decides not to go into this new pasture to find his sheep. What's most likely to occur? The sheep may be eaten by a wolf (competition), or they may get lost (customer frustrated that they can't find what they're looking for). There is no doubt that if the shepherd herds the sheep into a flock that the wolf (competition) has a better idea of where the sheep are.

However, in a flock, the sheep are less vulnerable, because the wolf is less likely to attack. Also, if an attack were to occur, the shepherd will be well aware of what occurred and can better prevent it in the future. Even if you decide not to herd your sheep, you should be in the new pasture helping to guide your sheep away from dangerous cliffs and waterfalls.

The moral of this tale? Don't be a blind shepherd when it comes to social networks.

About the author

Erik Qualman is the Global Vice President of Online Marketing for EF Education, headquartered in Lucerne, Switzerland. With more than 26,000 employees in 53 countries, EF Education is the world's largest private educator.

His book "Socialnomics: How Social Media has changed the way we live and do business" was released from Wiley Publishing in August 2009. Qualman is a frequently requested speaker within the Internet and marketing community and also maintains a social media blog at www.socialnomics.net.

Qualman has been highlighted in numerous publications, including: BusinessWeek, AdvertisingAge, USA Today, Forbes, PR Week, Investor's Business Daily, eWeek, Media Life, Direct Marketing News and Direct Response Magazine. He has also been interviewed on various radio and television outlets. Qualman is also a published fiction author.

Prior to joining EF Education, Qualman helped grow the online marketing and eBusiness functions of Cadillac & Pontiac (1994-97), AT&T (1998-2000), Yahoo (2000-03), EarthLink (2003-05) and Travelzoo (2005-08). Qualman holds a BA from Michigan State University and an MBA from The University of Texas at Austin. He was also first team Academic All-Big Ten in basketball at Michigan State and still finds time to follow his beloved Spartans.