My Love-Hate Relationship With Twitter

If you’re in the IT industry, tweeting has probably become a regular part of your day, like brushing your teeth. I know it has for me, as an industry analyst and researcher.

But, since joining the Twitterverse in 2008, I’ve slowly but surely reconciled myself to the fact that Twitter is my frenemy–because in most cases, the same reasons I love it are also the reasons I hate it!

My relationship with the cute little blue bird is complicated, for many reasons:

  1. I can say anything on Twitter. Free speech and all that is a great thing, of course. And Twitter is a great way to share ideas as well as random thoughts. But, how much is too much and how much is not enough? Just one more thing to worry about, especially now that many people also seem to be fixated on Klout scores which seem more correlated to volume than anything else.
  2. Anyone else can say anything on Twitter. I pick up a lot of very interesting tips, insights and ideas from other people’s tweets. And I may even be interested in where the closest of the thousands of people I follow are checking in on Foursquare. But there is also a great deal of trash–and seemingly more often of late, spam–swimming in the Twitter stream. Since one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, it may be wishful thinking to hope that filtering can one day take care of this problem, but I’m hoping. And of course, it means that people can have other people or entire teams of other people sending Tweets out for them. Ugh–very inauthentic and usually results in Twitter overload.
  3. The short lifespan of a tweet. The social media analytics and monitoring service Sysomos says that he average life span of a tweet is less than an hour. If a tweet falls in the Twitterverse, and there’s no one there to retweet or reply to it, did it really fall? The fact is that if no one retweets or replies a tweet within the first hour, the odds are that nobody ever will. So if I say something dumb, 99.99% of my followers won’t notice, which is great. But when I say something (that at least I think is) insightful or interesting, 99.99% of my followers won’t ever see that either!
  4. DMing (direct messages). This is great–a fast, quick and to the point way to engage. But unlike some of my peers that are more adept at multi-tasking, if I don’t happen to be looking at Tweetdeck, I may not see a DM in a timely way. I don’t use that continual alerting feature anymore because the constant pop-ups were driving me crazy and causing ADHD-like symptoms to erupt.
  5. Tweetdeck. Of course I love Tweetdeck because I can look at specific people, hashtags or groups more easily. But I hate it because it is now running about the length of a football field across my Mac screen.
  6. Now you can do long tweets! That 140-character thing is great, keeps everything short and sweet. But sometimes you just need more characters! So Deck.ly is fantastic for that when I have to use it, but a pain in the neck when I’m reading other people’s tweets and have to click-through on the link to read the whole tweet.

Phew…it was great to end my Friday by getting that off my chest, and if you have any relationship issues with Twitter, I’d love for you to share them back!

Becoming a Smarter Customer

—by Brent Leary, CRM Essentials, in partnership with SMB Group

In conjunction with IBM’s Smarter Commerce initiative, the SMB Group and CRM Essentials are working on a series of posts discussing how technology is empowering today’s customer, and why companies have to change their approach in order to build strong relationships with them.  This is the first in the series, and was based on a couple recent experiences of Brent Leary of CRM Essentials. The last example is really Brent’s dad’s experience using his iPad – which is the one that really brings it all home…so to speak.

I recently bought a new video camera—a Panasonic AG-HMC150. This was a pretty significant purchase for me because it represents a step up into the semi-pro leagues, as I’m planning to do some documentary style programs. I kicked off my buying process with two things: a question and a search.

I posed a question to my friends first. A few people I know do this professionally, so they were my first stop. And because I posed my question to them on Facebook and Twitter using a couple of hash tags, I received their valuable feedback along with great information from people I’m connected to but didn’t know were knowledgeable about video production. On top of that, I received even more valuable information from people I wasn’t connected to, but who saw my question due to the hash tags I used. So within a matter of minutes, I had a great deal of information to sift through to help me with my big buying decision.

While the feedback was pouring in from my social network, I also took to Google to find product information on video cameras. I found links to review sites, informative blog posts and videos comparing the various aspects of cameras to help me with my decision. I went to manufacturer sites to get specs, and followed that up with trips to CNET for in-depth reviews. All this was topped off by finding a few great online communities created by enthusiasts who are passionate about video production, and in some cases about specific cameras—like the Panasonic AG-HMC150 community on Vimeo.

Within a few days, I went from not knowing what to get, to feeling very confident in selecting the right camera for my needs. I also found a community of knowledgeable, experienced people who I could learn from and collaborate with to help me not only with my buying decision, but also with my video production activities. Once I decided which camera to buy, I used the web to find the right place to buy it. My newfound community recommended a company based on their previous interactions with it.

While this is just my personal experience, individual examples like mine are being replicated all over the web as social, cloud and mobile technologies help connect us to the people and information we need in order to find solutions when we need them. It’s what is driving hundreds of millions of people to spend a growing amount of time on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. With these social networks becoming collaborative platforms, and with smart mobile devices providing access from anywhere, we can build and extend relationships to people and information in ways that truly improve how we experience life.

One thing I love to experience every year is watching college basketball’s national tournament, also known as March Madness. I’m not alone, as this is annually one of the highest rated television events of the year. But this year I was even more into the tournament than ever before.

For the first time, every game was shown on one of four television networks. But the big reason I had a much better tournament experience had to do with the free apps for both the iPad and iPhone that streamed all games live—giving me a choice of seeing any game from wherever I happened to be.

Not only did the mobile apps make it possible to stream any game, they also made it possible to keep track of brackets, share information with my Facebook and Twitter friends, and participate in ongoing tournament conversations. The Social Arena, available through mobile apps and multiple websites, provided me with a non-stop flow of tournament information, including insights from on-air personalities like Charles Barkley. The Social Bracket allowed me to vote on who I thought would win each game, but it also tallied up all the votes to see how the overall viewing community picked the games. Finally, the NCAA and Turner Broadcasting hired people to use social media monitoring tools to analyze the chatter taking place around the tournament, in order to provide insights into what was driving conversations.

Now even if I didn’t have the social and mobile apps, I would have been watching the tournament. But because I love all my mobile devices as much as I love watching the games, I experienced March Madness in a way I couldn’t possibly have done in years past. And, as you might have guessed, I’m not the only one who likes both basketball and mobile devices, as you can see from the numbers below:

  • March Madness On Demand (MMOD) was the #1 free app for both the iPhone and iPad in the App Store during the first two days of availability.
  • 36% of all streams were from the iPad and iPhone apps the first weekend of the tournament.
  • The mobile apps averaged 683,000 daily unique users.
  • An average of 67.5 minutes per daily unique visitor was spent streaming MMOD on broadband.
  • The NCAA.com/MMOD broadband site averaged 3.8 million daily unique visitors.

Turner was able to leverage our love of social/mobile tools to provide viewers with a whole new level of engagement with the tournament. And, as Fast Company magazine stated in an article about the project, Turner is fit to deliver “a true revolution in sports. And in return they’ll get audience data, captivity and flexibility like no sports broadcasting has ever seen before.” As a side note, television ratings were the best they’ve been in 15 years.

It is clear today that people depend heavily on social networks and mobile technology. Now, more people have accounts on social networks than they have email accounts, and mobile device sales are poised to surpass combined desktop/laptop sales within the next year in the United States. Google+, a network only a couple of months old, already has more than 25 million users sharing over 1 billion pieces of content daily. The ease of content creation and distribution has led us into the age of the zettabyte (with 21 zeroes after the “1”)—which is the amount of information estimated to be available to us online today.

It’s not just the younger generations that are heavily dependent on these technologies. Baby Boomers, and people from earlier generations, are also adopting these tools. I know this from firsthand experience, watching my soon-to-be 80-year-old father using his iPad to do things he had never done before on his desktop computer. He reads books, listens to NPR, watches videos and shares information with his siblings on Facebook—and even Twitter. He uses Bank of America’s app to do his banking. He shops on Amazon.com and Apple’s App Store. He even mentioned reading a few of my blog posts, something I can’t remember him doing before.

Quite honestly, my father loves his iPad because it allows him to easily do so much more. And these tools enable today’s customer to do and experience more than imagined just a few short years ago. But, the fact that customers are smarter today has more to do with having better technology at their disposal than being brainier. Customers have always wanted more information and access to the right people. They have always wanted to be listened to, and have their ideas incorporated into developing better products and services. They’ve also wanted to be valued beyond the financial transaction that they bring to a company’s bottom line.

And now, because technology has empowered them to get together, share experiences and amplify their collective voice, customers expect companies to engage them with these new tools and communication channels. As customers leverage social and mobile technologies to improve their knowledge and life experiences, they will look to build relationships with businesses that will do the same. Well, at least my father and I will.

This is the first of a six-part blog series by SMB Group and CRM Essentials that examines the evolution of the smarter customer and smarter commerce, and IBM’s Smarter Commerce solutions. In our next post, we’ll look at key points businesses need to consider to best serve the smarter customer. In the meantime, we’d love to hear how you’re using the web, mobile and social technologies to become a smarter customer.

6 Tips to Maximize Twitter Event Hashtags

Originally published in Small Business Computing, 8-29-11.

Recently, a client asked me for some tips about how to get the maximum mileage out of Twitter event hashtags. Creating Twitter hashtags for your business events is a great way to multiply conversations about what you’re doing, and there are also lots of ways to maximize the impact of the hashtag. I put a few before, during and after the event tips here together for her, and thought I’d share them with you.

Twitter Hashtag Tips: Before the Event

1. Start publicizing your Twitter event hashtag a week or so in advance of the event. Of course Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook groups are good ways to do this, as well as adding this information to any schedules, confirmations or even press releases you send out.  This lets people start tweeting in advance that they are going to attend the event — “@bugsbunny can’t wait to see you at #acmeroadrunner next week!” It also lets people who can’t attend know where they can get a real-time feed of what’s happening.

2. Create a list of ready-made tweets for your internal team to get the ball rolling. When you have specific announcements slated, send your internal team several ready-made tweets that are related to the announcement. Plan to do this a day or two before the event. For instance, “Acme Co.’s Roadrunner on stage with demo of the new Wylie Coyote killer app.” Ask your team to add their own comments to the tweets to personalize them and send them out in conjunction with the live announcement.

Twitter Hashtag Tips: During the Event

3. Publicize the event hashtag on signage and check-in materials at the event. Make certain you provide the event hashtag, so that people don’t need to hunt for it when they’re ready to tweet. At too many events, it’s too hard for people to find the hashtag when they need it. You want to make it easy for people to tweet about the event.

4. Monitor the Twitter hashtag, and then identify and promote the most active tweeters. At most events, there are at least a few people documenting and/or providing a running commentary on what’s going on. Promote these tweeters to others with tweets such as “Thanks @bugsbunny @elmerfudd @sylvestercat for chronicling and commentary about #acmeroadrunner!” — or something along those lines.

Twitter Hashtag Tips: After the Event

5. Create a Twitter transcript of all the tweets from the event each day and tweet out how people can access it. Twitter chats are great for real-time information and opinion sharing at events and getting the back-story.  But people can’t always participate real-time, so make it easy for them to catch up.

These transcripts are also a great resource for active press and analyst tweeters, who increasingly “take notes” in Twitter and use the tweet stream to refresh their memories to write blogs or reports later on. This article tells you how to make a Twitter chat transcript using TweetReports. There are other services out there, too; I’ve heard they all have pros and cons, so you may want to search around on Google and compare, and I’d be interested to find out what you come up with.

6. Figure out how you can analyze all the great information you’ve collected. This Social Media Today post provides information about a number of Twitter tools that can help you analyze hashtag streams. Some of the tools include MentionMap, The Archivist and Hash Tracking. A lot of these tools are free and/or available in a freemium model.

Well, for now, that’s all folks! But I’m sure that there are lots of other great tips, and I hope that you’ll send me your own to add to the list.

Is There a Method to Social Media Madness?

By Sanjeev Aggarwal and Laurie McCabe, SMB Group, and Brent Leary, CRM Essentials

SMB adoption of social media for sales, marketing, product development and customer service is on the rise – but how are SMBs tracking, analyzing and measuring the success of their social media endeavors?

In our joint SMB Group/CRM Essentials “2011 Small and Medium Business Social Business Study,” we surveyed 750 SMB (small business is 1-99 employees; medium business is 100-999 employees) decision-makers about their use and plans for social media for sales, marketing, customer service and support, product development, HR and other business functions.

Featured Study Highlights

To put social media adoption in context, we asked several questions to better understand how SMBs accomplish their business objectives though different channels and mechanisms, including, “How does your company currently track, analyze and measure the success of its social media efforts?”

In the medium business segment, over half (52%) of respondents indicate that they currently use social media. Among these respondents, about 19% say they use it in an “ad hoc, informal” way, while 33% indicate they use it in a “structured, strategic” manner (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Medium Business: Comparison of Strategic and Ad Hoc Users’ Criteria to Track and Measure Social Media Implementation


When we take a deeper look at how medium businesses using social media track, analyze and measure success of social media efforts, we see that companies that take a strategic approach are more likely to incorporate a greater number and more actionable metrics to measure social media effectiveness than their informal, ad hoc counterparts.

  • For strategic users, actionable, customer-centric metrics such as referrals (14%), click through rates (12%), and inbound links (11%) top the list. These are followed by social media measurements such as number of followers and friends (9%), and sentiment analysis (9%), along with anecdotal feedback (9%).
  • Companies that use social media in an ad hoc manner are more likely to rate “softer”measurements, such as anecdotal favorable feedback (6%) and buzz from social media(4%) as top tracking criteria and yardsticks for success.

Not surprisingly, SMBs that take a structured, strategic approach—and use more actionable metrics—are also more satisfied with the results of their social media efforts than those engaging in an ad hoc manner. This underscores the need for better integration of social media with traditional sales, marketing, and service/support solutions, along with better tools to track and measure results.

Quick Take

For SMBs to truly evolve into “social businesses,” they need to be able to easily track, measure and tweak the results of their social media investments across a wide range of business activities, from product development through marketing and customer service .

Although the social media drumbeat is loud, SMBs’ enthusiasm will be curbed if they can’t figure out what impact their social media initiatives are having on business strategies and processes. Whether on their own or via partner solutions, vendors must provide SMBs the tools they need to integrate and evaluate social media efforts into their larger business strategy and framework or risk having those efforts falter.

Because social media engagement does not occur in a vacuum, businesses will want to measure social media efforts in context of broader sales, marketing and customer service or other initiatives. Although vendors focused on collaboration, CRM, marketing automation and other related areas are integrating social media into existing solutions, few provide the analytics required to track and measure the effectiveness of social media and its different channels in an actionable and streamlined manner.

HubSpot: From Breakthrough to Breakout

I’ve been very impressed by HubSpot, which helps small and medium businesses (SMBs) optimize and streamline their inbound marketing programs (see my 2009 interview with HubSpot Marketing VP Mike Volpe) for a while now. Looks like others are impressed too—as evidenced by HubSpot’s announcement that it has raised $32 million in a Series D funding round from Sequoia Capital, Salesforce.com, and Google Ventures. This round brings total investments in HubSpot up to $65 million.

What HubSpot Does and What Makes it Different

HubSpot’s online (aka cloud-based) solutions help SMBs manage their web sites and social media activities so they can increase inbound marketing leads, track those leads and optimize lead conversion to sales. HubSpot pricing ranges from $250/month to $1,500/month. The company has been on a roll, with a current annual run rate of $25 million annually, up from $10 million a year ago, and about 4,000 paying customers.

In addition to these fee-based services, HubSpot offers a slew of great free services to help SMBs optimize their content, including Twitter GraderPress Release Grader, Facebook Grader, and Website Grader (all fairly self-explanatory)—and one of my favorites, Gobbledygook grader, which checks your content for gobbledygook, hype, jargon, other meaningless words. As you’ve probably guessed, HubSpot uses these clever and helpful sites to drive its own inbound marketing engine—with fantastic results.  For instance, Website Grader has over 3 million users.

Although some people put HubSpot in the same category as marketing automation vendors such as Eloqua and Marketo, HubSpot has been the poster child when it comes to building the inbound marketing pipeline. I think that HubSpot invented the term “inbound marketing” (founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah literally wrote the book on how to get found online, Inbound Marketing: Get Found Using Google, Social Media, and Blogs in 2009).  While competitors have tended to focus on helping companies nurture the leads they already have,  HubSpot has blazed the trail in helping companies make the pipeline bigger.

Quick Take

This latest investment round adds momentum to HubSpot’s already solid growth trajectory. It should give current and prospective HubSpot customers a new infusion of confidence, and help HubSpot accelerate innovation.  HubSpot will undoubtedly use a good chunk of the funding to educate and move more SMBs up the curve and into this new era of marketing. After all, HubSpot’s 4,000 customers who are already “get it” are the very early adopters, and only a fraction of the vast SMB universe.

Some of the other areas I’ll be keeping my eye on include:

  • Possibilities with Salesforce.com and Chatter. HubSpot had been working on opening up it’s APIs already, and it’s not hard to envision using Chatter to integrate sales and marketing in a more collaborative, intuitive way. The bonus here is that HubSpot is a heavy Salesforce.com user, giving it a ready-made test-bed.
  • Serving up HubSpot via the Google Apps Marketplace. HubSpot’s all-in-one solution is great, but it can be a bit daunting for smaller companies to take on all at once. It would be great if HubSpot could package some of the key functions in smaller, bite-size pieces, which would then integrate with each other in Lego-like fashion.  That way, smaller companies could take baby steps but move into a full stride as they grow.
  • International expansion. 95%-plus of HubSpot’s customers are in the U.S. The investment should help HubSpot accelerate global sales and marketing. HubSpot can potentially take advantage of Google and Salesforce international data centers, translation capabilities, etc. as well.

While we’ll have to wait for HubSpot to reveal its plans, one thing is evident. HubSpot has plenty of opportunities to put it’s newly minted investment money and relationships with two technology powerhouses to work to change the rules of the digital marketing game in a very substantial way.

What is Social Media Management, and Why Should You Care?

(Originally published on March 4, 2010, in Small Business Computing)

What is Social Media Management?

As described in the column “What is Social Networking, and Why Should You Care?” Internet-based social media make it easier for people to listen, interact, engage and collaborate with each other. But, as the volume of social media venues and conversations rises, it quickly becomes a time and labor intensive process to effectively track, converse, monitor and manage them.

Social media management solutions can help you manage outbound and incoming online interactions—along with other marketing activities–in a more efficient manner. They streamline and consolidate how you listen to and participate in relevant conversations in the different places they’re taking place—blogs, social networks like Twitter or Facebook, and other public and private web communities and sites. They help you to more easily monitor what people are saying about your business, and by automating the process of delivering your outgoing messages through multiple social media outlets simultaneously, help you to amplify your social media presence across several social media sites.

Social media management tools can also help you to integrate social media activities with other marketing programs. These can include both other online activities, such as web site, search engine marketing campaigns, contact management systems, and email marketing, as well as offline marketing, such as events or white papers.

Why Should You Care?

We all know how important word of mouth is, and social media is like word of mouth on steroids. As a business, it’s vital to tap into and join online conversations not only about your brand, but also those about your competitors, your industry and your areas of expertise.

Even if you haven’t launched an outbound social media strategy, you to keep a pulse on what people are saying—good or bad—about your company, competitors and major trends. And, by representing your company in a positive, authentic way, you can build credibility for your expertise and business, and link to customers and prospects quickly. You can also help mitigate damage should negative conversations about your company emerge by proactively responding to complaints. Social media can also steer people to your other marketing programs, where it’s easier to individually track and manage individual customer and prospect interactions.

Done right, social media can help you better understand prospect and customer needs, and increase visibility and generate leads. But it takes a lot of time and energy to stay on top of all of this in a manual, piecemeal fashion. Think about the time it takes to just to cover some of the basics, such as:

  • Creating content in multiple places, such as a blog, Twitter, a Facebook page, etc., and monitor and scan the views, decide what comments to approve, and respond to replies on these sites.
  • Scanning Twitter followers for conversations you may want to join, or checking your RSS reader subscriptions for relevant articles and new ideas.
  • Checking Google Alerts to see when and where your business is mentioned on the Web.
  • Creating and monitoring a community and topics on a site such as Facebook or LinkedIn.

Now think about the fact the social media to do list is only going to grow. And while you are building goodwill, relationships and awareness, it’s difficult to measure short-term payback on social media efforts. And you can’t abandon other marketing activities—web site, search engine marketing, email marketing, etc. and contact and sales management. Social media management tools give you a way to get your arms around the many-headed social media Hydra by streamlining and integrating customer interactions across multiple marketing venues.

What to Consider

There are dozens, if not hundreds of solutions out there that let you manage/integrate different slices of the social media pie, but we are still searching for the Holy Grail in this relatively new area. However, I’ve spotted a few vendors that have put together some more comprehensive solutions designed and priced specifically for small business budgets, including:

  • BatchBlue’s BatchBook, a “social CRM” offering that integrates contact, sales and social media feeds, with mobile versions for iPhone and Blackberry. The social media integration is cool—after you enter social media feeds from Twitter, blogs, LinkedIn, etc. on a contact record, you automatically see a contact’s social networking profile, and the last three posts, tweets and/or other entries when you open the record so that you  can keep a pulse on  customers and prospects. With lists and reports, you can build lists, or create customized reports. BatchBook integrates with Mailchimp so you can send email newsletters to your lists. BatchBlue gives all new users a minimum of 2 hours of 1-1 consulting time to help them get productive as quickly as possible. Pricing ranges from $9.95 to $99.95 a month, based on the number of users, storage, and 1-1 consultation time you need. My take is that BatchBlue is a great solution for tech-savvy small businesses, especially services businesses where every relationship counts.
  • CloudProfile gives SMBs a unified content publishing and social media hub and web presence, which businesses can use standalone in place of web site, or with their existing web site. You create an online profile, which enables your business to get found in search engines like Google, business directories, and on social networks. It helps you find and connect with customers on Twitter and Facebook, and offers tools such as click-to-call, text messaging and e-mail marketing to help you stay connected with customers. CloudProfile provides built-In reports and connect to Google Analytics. The company plans to add PayPal and Amazon checkout and appointment scheduling soon. Pricing starts at $14.95 a month.  A very good choice for the approximately 40% of small businesses that don’t yet have a web site—gives you an online presence plus social capabilities.
  • HubSpot helps companies create, optimize and promote their content. HubSpot features a blogging platform and a content management system, and tools to help analyze your marketing reach via blogs, leads, Facebook and Twitter accounts. It provides links to conversations across the Internet related to your business’ keywords in one tidy dashboard. The Web Voter feature enables you to create a social news page on your site, where users can submit links and vote on them–creating an activity hub for discussion of hot issues. HubSpot also provides Keyword, Page and Link Graders, to help optimize search result rankings. Optional integration with Salesforce.com CRM is available. HubSpot charges an initial $500 start up fee, and ongoing pricing starts at $250 per month. It also offers a number of free tools, including Graders for web sites, press releases, blogs, etc. HubSpot, who we interviewed for a video a couple of weeks ago, provides a very comprehensive solution for both small and medium businesses.
  • ZooLoo provides a one-stop shop to get an online presence and manage social media interactions—including domain name registration, web site creation, a blogging platform, SEO tools, privacy controls, storage, and tools to connect across social networking sites–along with a personal dashboard to manage all of it. Some tools, such as the Graffiti blogging platform that lets you share posts across your social networks, are free. ZooLoo charges for other things, such as domain registration, web sites and privacy controls. ZooLoo’s fee-based services range in price from $1.99 to $9.99 per month. Although most of it’s current users are consumers, ZooLoo is a great fit for entrepreneurs—and the Facebook-like interface makes it easy for anyone to get the hang of.

As you can see, these companies come at the social media management conundrum from different angles. So as you evaluate these and other offerings, think about what is most critical to your business. What are your key objectives for your social media investments? Where do you spend the most time manually scanning, managing, updating and integrating across social media streams and more structured marketing activities? Where are the gaps? There is no one-size fits all, so start with your own requirements and objectives to help start taming the social media Hydra.

What is Social Networking, and Why Should You Care?

(Originally published in Small Business Computing, April 7, 2009)

Technology insiders tend to throw around technical terms and business jargon, assuming people outside the industry understand what it all means. By its nature, technology vocabulary is often confusing and complicated, and insiders often add to the confusion by over-complicating things. To help add a sense of clarity to the confusion, each month, Laurie McCabe, a partner at Huzitz & Associates (a business consulting firm), will pick a technology term, explain what it means in plain English, and then discuss why it may be important to you. This month Laurie looks at Social Networking.

What is Social Networking?

Social networking, also referred to as social media, encompasses many Internet-based tools that make it easier for people to listen, interact, engage and collaborate with each other. Social networking platforms such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, message boards, Wikipedia and countless others are catching on like wildfire.

People use social networking to share recipes, photos, ideas and to keep friends updated on our lives. In many cases, you can use social networking tools from mobile devices, such as Blackberries and iPhones, as easily as from a PC or Mac.

By its very nature, social networking is interactive. You can tell anyone (that you want to talk to, and that wants to listen to you) anything about your opinions and experiences—and vice versa–through blogs, Facebook pages, videos and even 140 character messages called tweets. You can also build communities based on common interests, causes and concerns.

While we don’t have room to discuss all of the social networking sites, here’s a sampler to help you get your head around today’s most popular social networking tools:

    * Blogs are sites that people set up to provide information and opinions about events, ideas or anything else they want to discuss. Blogs can include links to other related sites, photos, videos and sound as well as text. The number of bloggers is growing exponentially; eMarketer estimates that in 2007 there were almost 23 million U.S. bloggers and more than 94 million blog readers.

    * Twitter is a micro-blogging site. Twitter members post text messages called “tweets” of 140 characters or less, using either a computer or a cell phone. Other Twitter users can “follow”” your posts, but you can decide if you want to let them follow you or not. Compete.com, a Web-traffic analysis service, says that Twitter had 6 million unique visits in February 2009.

    * Facebook is a social networking site where you can set up a profile, join different communities, and connect with friends. More than 175 million people currently use Facebook—and the fastest growing demographic is people over the age of 35.

    * LinkedIn is a social networking site with about 38 million members. While it shares a lot of the same features and capabilities you’ll find on Facebook, LinkedIn focuses specifically on helping people build career and business communities.

    * Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Articles provide links to related information. In 2008, Wikipedia had 684 million visitors, and 75,000 contributors working on more than 10 million articles.

    * YouTube is a site to share and watch videos. Anyone can record a video and then upload and share it via the YouTube site. Everyone can watch the videos on YouTube.  In January, The U.S. Congress and YouTube announced the launch of official Congressional YouTube channels, which gives each member of the House and Senate the opportunity to create his or her own YouTube channel.  

The world of blogs, tweets and wikis can be confusing for many people. Even if you are comfortable using Facebook, YouTube and other services in your personal life, you may be wondering if social networking can be a useful tool for your business.

The answer is a resounding yes. Small businesses can use social networking for many practical purposes. You can use these tools (which are usually free) to locate experts and find information, pose questions and get answers. Thoughtful use of social networking services can help you move beyond conventional, one-way marketing, such as advertising, and tap into a more interactive marketing approach. For instance, you use social networking tools to:

    * Research ideas, and learn more about what customers and prospects are saying about their needs and experiences, and about your products and related areas.

    * Gain new market and competitive insights to improve your products and services.

    * Create and join conversations with customers, prospects, partners and other constituents about key issues and concerns.

    * Create positive word-of-mouth about your products and services.

    * Grow your company’s reputation as a thought leader. 

What to Consider

Navigating through the social media maze can be overwhelming at first. If you’re just starting out, remember you can start small. In fact, I’d recommend taking smaller steps first, before you tackle writing your own blog or creating an online community. Here are a couple of easy ways to get started.

    * Monitor relevant online conversations in social media. Tuning into online conversations can provide you with insights for marketing and new products and services. Google Blog Search and other tools can help you find relevant blogs, and you can set up an RSS reader, like Google Reader, to get content delivered to you automatically.

    * Join conversations. You don’t have to write you own blog—you can comment and respond or answer questions in other blog posts, or on Twitter. Follow the same rules of etiquette you’d use in the physical world—make your comments relevant, behave ethically and be authentic—and remember to identify yourself and your company.

    * Use relevant communities for market research. On LinkedIn, for instance, you can join relevant professional communities to discuss what’s going on in your industry and ask questions. Or try Facebook Polls to poll targeted Facebook users, based on demographic data. With this tool, you can field a single-question poll in a few minutes, and get responses from hundreds of people in less than hour. 

As you get more involved, you’ll learn as you go about the different types of social media, how other small businesses use them, and approaches you can use to launch your own online community, blog or YouTube video. So get in and join the conversation!

By Laurie McCabe
July 27, 2009
Technology insiders tend to throw around technical terms and business jargon, assuming people outside the industry understand what it all means. By its nature, technology vocabulary is often confusing and complicated, and insiders often add to the confusion by over-complicating things. To help add a sense of clarity to the confusion, each month, Laurie McCabe, a partner at Hurwitz & Associates (a business consulting firm), will pick a technology term, explain what it means in plain English, and then discuss why it may be important to you. This month Laurie looks at Unified Communications.
What is Unified Communications?
Most of us use several different tools and devices to communicate. At a minimum, you probably use a cell phone, a landline phone, fax and e-mail. Many of us also other tools as well, such as instant messaging, texting and Web conferencing.  Unified communications (UC) solutions incorporate these different modes of communications into one system.
Unified communication solutions take advantage of new technologies to integrate and streamline messages from many sources. For instance, a unified messaging system lets you access multiple phone lines, e-mail, fax and instant messaging from one place. These solutions break down communications barriers so that it’s easier and faster for you to find, reach and communicate with other people, and vice versa.
It’s important to remember that UC isn’t one tool, but a solution that pulls together all of the communication and collaboration tools that you’re already using (plus some new ones you may want to add) so you can communicate through a consistent interface and experience. For instance, with a UC solution, you give your customers just your office phone number, and calls to that number will also ring simultaneously on your cell phone.
UC solutions can integrate both non-real-time communications tools, such as traditional phone lines, e-mail, fax and voice-mail, with real-time communications tools such as instant messaging (IM) and Web conferencing. They can also incorporate many other communication tools, too, such as and voice over IP (VoIP) telephony solutions, text messaging, screen sharing and video conferencing—just to name a few. Many use presence awareness technology that locates where people to see if they’re available, (think IM buddy list).
Why Should You Care?
Whether you’re a sales person, a construction worker or an attorney, you’re likely to be on the go, or working from different locations throughout the week. UC solutions can help you get more done more quickly. They help you and stay connected to your co-workers and customers, whether you’re on the road, in the office or working from home.
Depending on where you are and what the situation requires, your preference for the device you use (cell phone, PDA, notebook desktop computer, fax machine) is likely to change, as is the mode of communicating (traditional phone service, IP telephony, cell phone, text message, IM, etc.).  Everyone else is in the same boat. So, while it’s nice to have all these handy tools, it’s a chore to remember different numbers, and to constantly check different services for messages.
UC can help you be more productive and save you time by letting you move seamlessly from one device and mode of communication to another. For example, using a UC solution, you could:
    * Have your calls follow you. For instance, say you dial into a conference call from your home phone at 6:00 a.m. When you walk out the door, the call transfers automatically to your cell phone—without interruption. When you get to the office, the call transfers to your office phone, which has the capability to also initiate a Web conference. 
    * Find people you need more quickly. Let’s say you and your sales manager both have busy schedules. You will both be in and out of the office in between sales calls. You’re in the last throes of negotiating a deal, and you need to get his buy-in on a discount—but you have no idea where he is.  A UC solutions tracks down your boss for you. It knows the phone number where your boss is located, and automatically forward the call to the phone line he can access. 
UC can also help you operate more flexibly and save money.  Say, for instance, you hire five more employees; the solution will easily accommodate remote workers. With a UC solution that includes IP telephony, it’s easy and fast to add new phone lines for new workers, wherever they’re located. Instead of having to move to a bigger office and pay higher rent, the new employees can work from home with just an Internet connection.
What to Consider
UC can be a confusing area to evaluate because different vendors design and build their solutions with different assortments of communications and collaboration tools. If you’re considering UC, start by putting together a list of communication pain points and problems that your company faces. Depending on the nature of your business, its size, and how people work, you may want very different capabilities than the business next door. You’ll also want to look for a solution that is flexible enough to let you add new capabilities as you need them.
The other area you’ll want to consider is how you want to deploy the solution. Companies such as Avaya, Cisco and many others sell UC solutions — designed specifically for small businesses — that package up systems, software and phones. IBM just announced that it will add a real-time communication version to its Lotus Foundations line, which is designed for small businesses that want one appliance to support communications and collaboration. Finally, vendors such as PanTerra provide software-as-a-service (SaaS) UC solutions through its partner channel. 
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