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Setting Your Social Media Expectations

"It's unrealistic to think that because you join a social network, your entire business will change," says Ben Parr, coeditor of Mashable, a leading social media blog. "You have to find people who are interested in what you do and respond to those who are talking about your brand. It should be an ongoing part of the marketing you do. And like anything worth doing, developing your social media profile takes time."

Simple Indulgences on Facebook

Once you amass a sizable, loyal following for your Facebook updates and your tweets, you might expect to experience a number of benefits.

Reduced ad spending: Stanya Doty, the sole proprietor of wine and gift shop Simple Indulgences, says that Facebook and the e-mail campaign service Constant Contact have allowed her to cut ad spending by 75 percent. She admits that getting attention on Facebook can be difficult--but her Facebook fan base is growing. "And if I can get information out without having to pay for it," Doty adds, "that can only help my business, especially in a difficult economic environment."

Enhanced customer service and customer relations: "One negative blog post or tweet about your company can cause a lot of damage," says Parr. But you can turn it around by responding quickly to the complaint. Cable TV giant Comcast is the gold standard for companies that use social media to respond to their customers. When Comcast gets wind of a complaint about its service on Twitter, the company will usually respond right away to the customer, asking how it can be of help.

Valuable market research: Chris Lindland, founder of the quirky online-only apparel company Cordarounds, tracks what people are chatting about by using Twitter, viewing Google Alerts, and reading blogs. The blog and Twitter conversations sometimes inspire new Cordarounds products.

Cordarounds on Facebook

For example, Lindland knew from reading blogs and Twitter posts that a lot of active bloggers and tweeters are bicyclists. So Cordarounds developed Bike to Work pants, which have a reflective lining that, when the wearer rolls the cuffs up, provide nighttime safety. Cordarounds got the word out about the new pants through Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail sent to customers and journalists. Almost immediately, Boing Boing and Gizmodo blogged about the pants, Lindland says, and bikers were soon tweeting about them.

"Within a few weeks, we'd sold 500 pairs," he adds. "It was the greatest impact we've had so far in the shortest amount of time."

Lindland also tracks conversations on Twitter and in the blogosphere after a product launches, to get feedback. Cordarounds responds directly to many tweets, but always in a way that's personal and--in keeping with its brand--offbeat, Lindland says.

Improved search engine optimization: When you're creating buzz on social media networks, chances are high that bloggers, journalists, and other parties will link to your Website. External links pointing to your site--especially those from authoritative, relevant, and highly trafficked sites--can boost your site's ranking in Google and other search engines, says Adam Lasnik, Google's search evangelist. "Those links tell Google your Web page is likely more relevant and more important than others [without similar-quality links]," he says.

The ability to tell customers where to find you: A number of small, itinerant food businesses are successfully using Twitter and other social media to let customers know their locations. Curtis Kimball, who operates a mobile crème brûlée cart in San Francisco, often posts his location and flavors of the day on Twitter. Kimball currently has over 8000 Twitter followers. Twitter "has been pretty essential to my success," Kimball told the New York Times in July, adding that he quit his job as a carpenter to keep up with his burgeoning dessert business.

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