When Imke Ratschko started a weblog around her legal practice in May 2006, she quickly realized she was one of the only small business law bloggers in New York City. Out on her own after nine years at a Manhattan corporate firm, she knew she needed to market her services, and the best way to do that was to show potential clients the breadth of her expertise and offer them information they could use. She started writing about topics relevant to small businesses and the law on her website (newyorksmallbusinesslaw.com). She now gets around three calls a week from potential clients who read the articles. “I’ve met a lot of other lawyers who have sent me referrals, and blogging has expanded my sphere of influence,” she says. Ratschko covers topics such as “Keep your legal fees in check” or “How to convert an LLC into a corporation” that are relevant to her audience.
Blogging is just one of several practices collectively known as social media. The term is used to describe many of the new media you’ll find on the Internet today, including videos on YouTube, wikis, podcasts, video blogs (or Vlogs). What differentiates these pages, videos and audio clips from the standard media that have existed for years? Social media are forms of media where people come to share their ideas, interests and opinions with others. The key to social media is “user-created content,” where readers contribute their knowledge, opinions and thoughts. In social media, interaction isn’t only possible, it’s indispensable. With a blog, for instance, website visitors have an opportunity to comment and get into a conversation with the blogger.
Wouldn’t you like to have a website where users were happy not only to spend time, but also to contribute to the content and share it with others? Compare this kind of site to the website of a typical business and “it’s the difference between a brochure and a newspaper,” says Fred Siebert, president of Frederator Studios, an animation firm in New York. “People may look at your brochure site once, or when they have a specific need they may find it via a search. That’s valuable, and you have to have that standard brochure-type information such as a listing of the services you offer, how to contact you and the like on any website. But contrast that with a newspaper, where the content changes every day. A blog gives you an opportunity to provide all your potential customers with new information on a regular or even daily basis.”
Making your website more interactive has a solid payoff for your business. First of all, it heightens the visibility of your company and your brand. It permits you to market your knowledge, which, at the core, is what all businesses are selling. These days, if a potential customer is looking to purchase a product or service, chances are they’re going on the Web, and a site that has useful, insightful content gives a business instant credibility. Another marketing advantage is that websites with frequently updated content show up higher in Internet searches.
But there’s another big advantage to having a site that interacts with your customers and visitors. It builds a relationship with those customers and helps retain them. It also provides a window into what people think about your company and your products. Customers have the opportunity to discuss concerns and specifically request things from you. That helps small business owners get an idea of how people are using their products, enables them to help customers find what they need, allows them to tailor products and services to customers, and encourages them to create new services or products for which they might not even realize a market exists. Quite simply, it gives small businesses the information necessary to better serve their customers. (The flip side of blogging is the need to stay informed about what others are saying about your company. For more on this, see “Safeguarding Your Online Reputation,”)
The big question in building online community is how to get people to start contributing and using it. Seed a discussion group or question-and answer page with some comments and questions to get the ball rolling (or recruit some friendly clients or business associates to do it). But key to getting and keeping the interaction going is a quick response from you and your business. Assign a staff member to moderate discussions, answer questions and respond quickly when a user posts something on your site, or the chatter can go quiet very quickly.
Howard Greenstein is a social media strategist and evangelist with the Harbrooke Group, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.