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The Buzz Behind Social Media

Companies use social networking to stand out over the competition.

In August 1998, Nick Scott was paralyzed in a car accident. Consumed with his loss, the high school football player let his weight soar to 300 pounds. Then it struck him: “We all have challenges in our lives,” he says. “It’s about pushing yourself to overcome that obstacle.”

Today, at age 28, he’s a competitive wheelchair bodybuilder with product endorsements and a regular touring schedule. Scott chronicles the story of how he transformed his life — and continues to push himself — on BodySpace, the social networking component of Bodybuilding.com. It’s stories like Scott’s that have helped the 11-year-old nutritional supplements mom-and-pop shop build a thriving social networking site with nearly 525,000 members. Those members keep each other inspired and engaged in their goals, and they share information about the products that can help them reach those goals.

“It’s so much different than us saying, ‘This is why you should love this product,’” explains Crystal Matthews, who leads Bodybuilding.com’s social networking initiatives. “You have 500,000 people who are advocates for your company.”

Like many web-based companies, much of Bodybuilding.com’s business is driven by its online forum, where members communicate and share measurements, workouts and diet information. But Matthews also uses sites such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and YouTube to attract new members and increase activity on the company’s sites. She’s not alone. Businesses of all stripes are finding that social networking isn’t just about socializing. It’s become a powerful tool to attract new audiences, expand business models and market products.

“If we started a few years earlier, when Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist, I think we’d be struggling now,” says Philip Ly, founder and managing partner of Tolland, Conn.-based Idostream, a live-event streaming media provider.

Hazard Signs

Along with the benefits of social networking come hazards for businesses. Creating a Twitter feed is one thing; updating it with relevant information is another. Then there’s the possibility that the social networking giants could incorporate a component of your service into their sites and make your business obsolete.

“None of us have a crystal ball,” says Tom Rocha, marketing and sales director and partner at LiveEventStream.com, a website operated by Idostream. “It’s an exciting field because there’s so much we can do, but it’s scary because it’s easy to become out of date.” By keeping up with social media, however, you might be able to see what’s coming next.

Many business leaders also worry that instead of building a committed audience, social networking opens them up to public negative feedback.

“What if someone doesn’t like this?” poses Matthews. “So what?” Someone else will, she suggests. When you allow negative comments on your site, it makes the positive ones look real. “No one believes a million people all love one product.”

James Moody, partner at Austin-based Transmission Entertainment, a creative booking agency, uses feedback to make business decisions. Before creating T-shirts for the annual Fun Fun Fun Fest music festival that Transmission produces, Moody used Facebook and the Fun Fun Fun Fest blog to ask members of the festival’s networking site if they would be interested.

But, he warns, to be successful, market research and advertising need to be small portions of your social media strategy. The Fun Fun Fun Fest site offers personal profiles, Twitter feeds, music downloads, freebies and insider information. “Instead of selling to them, you have to be talking to them,” Moody says, “and then every once in a while, you sell something. There are so many people doing it wrong that they can detect it right away.”

The key, says Matthews, is to make people feel invested in your company by offering them value. Instead of posting information about a 20-percent-off sale, create a sense of urgency and exclusivity, she suggests. Bodybuilding.com once invited its Facebook fans to text the word “gift” for a chance to win a $100 store credit. More than 1,000 people texted, which gave Bodybuilding.com those phone numbers in case it moves into mobile marketing.

Transmission Entertainment created a Fun Fun Fun Fest site where users can blog during the lead-up and follow-up to the festival. To drive activity, Transmission gives members points based on their level of activity on the site, and they can use them to purchase tickets or merchandise or win prizes — everything from T-shirts to a chance to go on stage with the band of their choice.

The nation's 500 fastest-growing private companies, as identified by Inc. magazine, use social media at more than twice the rate of Fortune 500 companies.

SOURCE: Center for Marketing Research, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

For the sponsors, the site turned a two-day event into a six-month event because of all the hype before and after the festival. “When we were incentivizing them to earn points, they were absolutely marketing for us,” Moody says. The festival, held annually since 2006, sold more tickets, spent less on advertising and got more press this year, the first with the member site. “It’s gone from The Austin Chronicle to Billboard Magazine,” he says of the coverage.

Some strike the speaking-with/selling-to balance very naturally, but for many, it’s an elusive art. Bodybuilding.com doesn’t have a social media policy in place, but employees are told that only Matthews can speak on behalf of the company. That’s important, she says, for branding purposes and to make sure messages don’t overlap.

It’s a lot easier than it looks, says Matthews. She makes sure to post once a day and they’re often variations of the same messages on different sites. She also uses tools like TweetDeck to monitor what others are saying about the company. “The more you put yourself out there, the more people are going to talk about you, the more you have to keep up with them,” she says.

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May 21 2010 Spice IT

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