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ABP News holds debate on social networking sites, govt warns Twitter

Chris is: “writing a column about how businesses can benefit from social networking websites”. Sound familiar? This is my Facebook update. If you’re not sure what I mean, keep reading. Wait, even if you know what I mean, keep reading!

Have you ever noticed how almost everyone you know is involved in some type of social networking website? Whether it’s Facebook, Myspace, Linked In, Twitter or the countless other sites, social networking websites have become an accepted form of communication and method of keeping tabs on what the people you know are up to. The benefits also cross the line into the world of business and this is where it gets interesting.

If you are skeptical, I invite you to look into the membership numbers. My Space claims to have over 200 million members. Facebook reportedly has 80 million and is growing rapidly. The list of other websites goes on, but the numbers are staggering.

Although sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are perceived to be mainly for friendly networking, you can also create pages for your business. And for those who aren’t yet on the bandwagon, hop on Facebook or one of the other sites and search around for a particular company. If they are savvy and educated on how social networking is transforming the way business is done, you will find them. Whether it’s a group, a fan club or a page about the company, there is a good chance you’ll track them down on one of the social networking sites.

Similar to Google ads, many of the most popular social networking sites have advertising and marketing opportunities available. For many businesses, this has proven to be a very effective approach, as advertisers can be ultra specific with the demographics they want to target. You can run a campaign that gets as specific as you want. I know a company that recently launched a Facebook marketing campaign targeting 35-40 year old married females living in a specific zip code. Think about all of the public information people post and then think about how it can be compiled and used as the world’s largest marketing database, as I recently heard it called. Scary isn’t? Scary, but genius.

It’s fairly obvious that these large networking sites can benefit advertising and marketing campaigns, but how can sales people use them to their selling advantage? This particular topic has grown in popularity and I have noticed more and more people using social networking sites to help drive sales. But what’s the real story? Is this acceptable to many of the people who frequent these sites? How effective are these efforts?

As a fairly late adopter of the social networking craze, I don’t consider myself to be an expert on every site, but I would like to share my experiences and observations and let you decide what may work best for your selling efforts.

I was surfing around on Facebook the other day and the instant message pop up suddenly appeared. It was my financial advisor reminding me to complete a list of actions that I needed to get off my backside and complete. After I responded, I quickly realized that he was using Facebook to follow up with his clients and move business forward. Good for him! In this case, I didn’t feel like it was awkward that we were in a way, doing business on Facebook.

I have another “Facebook Friend” who constantly posts updates about the company he sells for. He is very into it and develops very compelling messages. Almost daily, you can count on some blurb about a new product, an event or some other news. One could argue that he isn’t really selling, but by typing a few words and clicking enter, he is getting his companies name in front of hundreds of people in his network. Prior to his posts, I had never heard of the company. Now, I am a customer. Interesting.

I know several people who rely heavily on Linked In as a prospecting tool and database. With a few clicks, they can look up companies and contacts within the company that they are somehow connected to. Even if the contact is two or three friends away, there is a connection of some type and that can often be used to warm up calls or even broker an introduction with that hard to reach executive you’ve been trying to pin down.

These are just a few examples of sales people benefiting from incorporating social networking into their sales efforts and I’m sure new ideas and techniques and best practices will continue to be developed. The opportunity for sales professionals continues to grow and it’s time every business accepts it and looks for ways they can best fit into these types of websites.

So go Twitter (or should I say Tweet) about something related to your business. Create a group on Facebook for your company. Check Linked In to track down prospects. Create a My Space page and educate prospects about your product or service. Your biggest challenge will be remembering all of your different user names and passwords and keeping up on updates for each site, but there is almost a guarantee you will see a healthy return on the time and effort you put into it.

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