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Social media: Everyone uses it, but not necessarily to their greatest advantage. NBIA asked Chris Reddin, executive director of The Business Incubator Center in Grand Junction, Colo., to share her knowledge and experience with integrating social media at her incubator. NBIA workshop participants give her presentations on the subject high praise.

Incubators and social networks: Your time online

by Chris Reddin

June 2011

Many incubator managers are hesitant to integrate social media into their programs, fearing the effort will be nothing more than a distraction that takes time away from their core mission of assisting client companies. That fear is valid; however, social media is an increasingly important tactical component of an effective marketing plan that can supplement and enhance relationships in the business community.

Many in the business community jumped on the social media bandwagon because it appeared to be "free." However, the costs of using social media are not measured in dollars, but in time, energy and public perception. Questions arise: What is the return on my investment in social media? Can "followers," "fans" and "friends" translate into new clients, sponsors or other supporters of my program?

Possibly – if social media is viewed as a technology tool to enhance the strategy behind your relationship marketing plan. Start as you would with any other new program opportunity: Do background research, learn how the tools work and find out how your peers have used them to their advantage. Social media users also must develop enough Web savvy to navigate privacy, security and propriety issues to enhance rather than detract from client relationships.

If used properly, social media can be an effective tool for engaging new customers or – in the case of incubation programs – new clients. In a December 2010 article in the Harvard Business Review entitled "Branding in the Digital Age: You're Spending Your Money in All the Wrong Places," David Edelman examined the way consumers engage with brands. He notes that consumers don't narrow brand preferences; they spend more time evaluating options and validating opinions with peers online. Brands need to continually interact with their customers and encourage loyalty since new customers usually come through recommendations by an existing one.

This pattern is exactly how entrepreneurs find incubation programs. Potential clients research what an incubator is, network with peers connected to the program and act upon a recommendation for the program. Most experienced incubator mangers know how to do word-of-mouth marketing: speaking at service clubs, attending business networking events and being generally well-connected. But the savviest of managers realize that the dialogue doesn't just happen at these events; it also occurs online. The relationships, the presentations, the handshaking are all important, but social media involves the same relationship development – just in a new format.

Facebook

The Business Incubator Center started its move into social media about three years ago with a Facebook page, which contained links to interesting business articles. Every morning, I spent about 30 minutes reviewing recent headlines to find stories I thought were relevant to local entrepreneurs, including articles and blog posts. I took this fairly academic/intellectual approach to the page for more than a year, and the results: crickets, nada, zilch. Almost no one read them. The posts created no buzz.

I gave up and turned our Facebook page over to two other staffers to post what they thought was interesting. They posted pictures of fancy cupcakes, announced a Halloween costume contest and requested that people share pictures of their dogs. The results? Traffic to the page soared. At one point, we had three times as many views on Facebook as we did on our Web site, our highly optimized, carefully developed, vigorously updated Web site. Traffic was sky-high, but we were way off-topic. What does that mean? Do our clients really care more about cheesecake flavors than insights into the current lending environment?

The answer is yes – at least on Facebook. While waiting in line clicking Facebook links on my phone one day, I realized how difficult it is to read a full Wall Street Journal article on that little screen. It's also impossible to absorb the content in a busy environment. Facebook, on the other hand, is perfectly designed for simple distraction. An effective post on Facebook can be understood in a few seconds.

To market effectively on Facebook, you must be able to spark a conversation with your client or potential client through their smartphone while they wait in line in a crowded coffee shop. Not a simple task, but it can be done. For example, Gangplank, a coworking space in Phoenix, recently posted a picture of a line of colorful Post-it notes strung across a desk with the text, "How Katie Charland likes to do her goals each week, right in front of her monitor. How do you do your planning?" This post is effective because it's light and simple, but still thought-provoking.

Business posting on Facebook is not easy to do well. Speaking through short bursts of information in a single sentence is an acquired skill, but with 500 million active users on Facebook, a professional presence there is critical.

Twitter

Twitter is fascinating once you filter out all the noise. To find and pay attention to only important Tweets, use targeted lists and hash tag searches to filter information. Use tools like Tweetdeck, Hootsuite or Digsby – an application developed by a client of Rochester Institute of Technology's Venture Creations incubation program – to view only the traffic you need to see. Check out The Twitter Guidebook on Mashable for more Twitter usage tips.

I love Twitter; it allows you to follow local trends in entrepreneurship without much time or effort. A few minutes perusing tweets from a few of the most active entrepreneurs, and you're connected. My clients in Grand Junction, Colo., are not on Twitter, though. Facebook yes, Twitter, no. Knowing where your clients are determines which social media tools are best for your program. In many communities, Twitter can create buzz about events or attract interest in clients, but it's not for every community.

LinkedIn

Finally, incubation professionals simply must be on LinkedIn, an important business-networking tool. A LinkedIn profile is simply an online version of your resume. As you build connections, you quickly develop a social media tool that demonstrates both your business expertise and your connections in various industries and communities. LinkedIn includes an answers section to help users find solutions to difficult questions and groups to help connect people in various industries.

In a recent Rocky Mountain Incubation Roundtable conference call, we shared contact information between 26 people in four states simply by asking them to join a LinkedIn group. LinkedIn is simple, professional and – to my great delight – somewhat boring. No one feels compelled to check LinkedIn before they go to bed. It is not addictive and is effective. Every incubator professional should build a complete profile with a few hundred contacts – and hopefully a few heartfelt recommendations.

Communication options have skyrocketed from the days when you ran an ad and waited for customers to pour in. Businesses – and business incubation programs – need multifaceted marketing plans, and social media tools are ideal for supplementing relationship marketing tactics. So, give the traditional talk to Rotary, and then connect with your lunch partners on LinkedIn, ask your Facebook fans which Rotary chapter they belong to and borrow your next presentation topic from one of your peers on Twitter. Don't be fake, have fun with it and start today to build your social media presence. You'll learn a lot from the experience.

Keywords: marketing and promotion, marketing/sales, networking, networking activities – client, new technology, social networking

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