It’s Always Been a “Social” Activity

It’s Always Been a “Social” Activity

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Over the past couple of years, the photo imaging industry has watched the explosion of social networking with anguish: nobody prints, and printing is the profit driver of our businesses. Recent announcements indicate that the infrastructure for making prints and personalized photo products from images uploaded to social networks is ramping up. So social networkers should become aware that printing is an option. Having warily watched the development of this new communication tool, are we now ready to embrace it, both for printing opportunities and for new business development? Well, ready or not, we need to.

What exactly is social media, and what could it mean for your business? While we've covered this topic before, we wanted to give you a more imaging industry-specific angle this time around.

Cutting Through the Hype

Even in its most basic format, social media is a term that, for the past few years, has been shrouded in mystery and marketing hype. The concept of sharing information and ideas between individuals using Web-based technologies to exchange text, images, video, and/or audio isn't new and has been happening since the early days of the Internet. The idea of technology enabling user-generated content to reach the size, scope and even globalization of traditional mainstream broadcast media is revolutionary. It represents a fundamental shift of how individuals seek and obtain news and information on which to base purchasing and other decisions. Unlike the traditional media model, which directs communication from one to many, social media is based on conversations among many groups. The ability to harness the power and influence of these conversation groups or “networks” to help you grow your business is gained by understanding the basics of social network marketing.

Social networks have been gaining increased use exponentially in 2009. The largest sites include Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Twitter, Flickr and LinkedIn. Facebook alone has more than 300 million active users, 50 percent of whom are logged onto Facebook on any given day, while 65 million are accessing it via their mobile devices. If Facebook were a country, it would be the fourth largest in the world. Over 70 percent of current active Facebook users are outside the U.S., the third most populated country.

YouTube is the second largest Internet search engine, serving over one billion video views per day. If you watched every video currently live on YouTube, it would take you over 145 years. There are now over 50 million professionals networking on LinkedIn and over three million tweets averaged per day on Twitter. These trends are certain to continue as social technologies adapt and improve.

The most important statistics for photo imaging retailers is the volume of images stored and shared on social media. In October 2009, there were over four billion photos on Flickr, which is only the fourth largest photo-sharing site. Imageshack and others, including Snapfish average over 20 billion photos; that's about four images for every person on our planet. Social media is quickly becoming the location of choice for storing and sharing digital memories. Sharing photos is the number one most popular activity in social networking. Social media technologies that focus on photo-sharing are quickly converging Web and mobile platforms as seen in anything from Wi-Fi photo frames to iPhone apps such as the recently announced “Knocking” App by Pointy Heads Software that allows users to instantly share up to 100 photos and video regardless of the users' physical proximity. Think of social media as the technology that has enabled and encouraged today's “storytelling” and a place where your business should have a professional brand presence and permanent location.

It Takes Time

Social media tools can be the most powerful elements of your business, service and communication plans if properly developed and integrated. Most companies that are successfully using social media to grow their businesses did not get there overnight, or completely without effort or cost. The first step of success is to consider social networks a critical tool in your planning mix, which should be given the same investments in resources and training as you would any other tool. Traditional tools such as e-mail, direct mail, surveys, print advertising, newsletters and broadcast can be greatly enhanced by incorporating social media elements.

Popular brand companies currently demonstrating the best practices in social networking focus their efforts in four main areas: marketing and public relations; customer service/retention and loyalty; education and thought leadership; and sales/lead generation.

Each approach is unique and determined by your company's overall business goals. For example, if your goal is to gain more repeat business from your existing customers, you might employ the help of Facebook and Twitter to build a direct relationship with your clients and get their candid feedback on your products and services. If generating brand awareness and buzz is your priority, then you might consider placing targeted ads on Facebook or Blogs, or drive link-building and sharing via Twitter and social bookmarking sites such as Digg. A team of sales representatives might benefit from seeking key company contacts using LinkedIn, or crowd-sourcing referrals through a Facebook Fan Page.

Many retailers report success by educating their clients with tips and techniques for effectively using their services, or simply taking better pictures. Tips, how-tos and inspiring ideas are the most popular links shared on social sites. Video sites such as YouTube provide the perfect venue to distribute informative, entertaining, “viral” clips. You could even consider aligning your content with a popular online personality; some of the top YouTube stars have over 300 million video channel views. Targeting your partnerships with key bloggers and including their social connections with a contest or promotion can bring quick results. The endorsement of your product or service by a social influencer, paid placement or otherwise, is the surely one of the most effective methods of capturing new business.

Fly on the Wall

Another key benefit of social networking is the ability to listen and learn about popular industry and competitive trends. Social search sites such as SocialMention.com, TweetGrid and Addictomatic.com can provide instant updates on keywords you'd like to track. You can search other brands, or promotions and listen to what customers are saying and what they want to purchase. Most of these sites offer the ability to save a topic search and subscribe to that search via RSS feed or email alerts. Before you finalize exactly how you will incorporate social media into your business, it's best to research these areas and find best practices and current guidelines.

One way to determine which social sites to include in your brand is to survey your customers using traditional methods and ask them which networks they currently use. It's often best to begin where you have an established client fan base then leverage that base by promoting positive discussions and grow those into other social networks.

For the most part, you'll find that your focus will be on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr as these are the most popular sites featuring power photo users. Within these networks are smaller niche communities that can be targeted into groups that include; moms, students, pet owners, scrapbookers, travel enthusiasts and more. Connecting your business to these groups and finding advocates and influencers that can provide meaningful feedback and examples can be a guaranteed boost for your business.

URL Caution

Regardless of which social site you decide is the best fit for your business, you should be sure to secure your company's brand URLs. Just as it is important to obtain the proper Web site URL for your business, in today's fast-growing social network world it's equally important to register your preferred “handle” on social media sites. Many major brands have fallen to the hands of “social brand squatters,” which go onto these sites and register another company's name; often misleading consumers into thinking they are the voice of the brand. The main social sites, including Twitter, YouTube, and most recently, Facebook – who up to this summer didn't allow you to create a custom URL – have now implemented verification procedures to help brands protect their identities.

A quick way to check on your brand URLs is to use a site such as Knowem.com, Namechk.com, and Friendscall.me. These sites let you instantly see whether the URL you want is available or already taken across hundreds of social sites from a single Web page. Some offer registration services for a fee, while others such as Friendscall.me allow you to register and receive e-mail notifications when new sites are added so that you can be sure to continue updating your social URLs. Even if you decide not to implement all of the sites you registered initially, it's still a good idea to sign up with your basic company information and contact, as it will improve your SEO and search efforts.

Content Inventory

One critical success factor in leveraging the power of search through social networks is to have a consistent company URL, description, logo and keyword tags. You may have already done research in this area when building your Web site, but much of this information can also be found on your press releases. Before setting up your initial social accounts, create a quick checklist and content inventory—simple text files will work—that includes the following elements that will save you time during setup. First, designate an e-mail address or create a new e-mail address that you will use specifically for your social networking efforts. Doing this will help you funnel your notifications and messages through a centralized account. Check this account several times throughout the day initially to catch any potential issues or questions that may arise. Next, you will need a basic company description—two versions actually: one under 160 characters and another with fewer than 250 characters. This is a basic description of your business, just a few sentences, including keywords, which will benefit you when someone does a social search for your brand. You will also want to keep a list of five to 10 keywords, or tags, that you will use and test in order to ensure the best ranking for your social accounts.

In addition to the descriptive text, you'll also want to gather your logos, preferably in both horizontal and square format. Many of the sites only allow you around 100 x 100 pixels to display your image, so it's best to create those in advance so that you know what they will look like as an icon. After determining your images, you should also create a “starter list” of e-mail addresses in a simple text file separated by commas, which you can use to import into your social accounts and pre-populate them with connections that you can use to grow. You can use your existing e-mail marketing lists, names from your address book, or other sources such as business cards.

Each social site has specific links on their main page that allow you to quickly set up your accounts. Follow the instructions and enter the basic information that you've gathered. After you've setup the initial information, you should then determine the best way to customize them so that they closely resemble your existing Web site, ensuring online brand consistency. Facebook and LinkedIn allow for limited customization, but both Twitter and YouTube let you to create a custom background graphic to display and support your brand. There are standard templates available online to do this, and you should think of these as free online Web banner advertising spaces to promote the main points of your business. You can include banner graphics in YouTube in fairly large sizes that can easily be changed throughout the year to support your promotions.

Focusing on Facebook

Facebook should be a priority site for your business, but remember that Facebook operates in two areas; an account profile for individuals and a “fan page” for your business. It's important to have at least one “official” individual account in order to best administer your “fan pages.” In the past, Facebook only had “groups,” which were their equivalent of discussion forums. Fan Pages however, allow for the addition of images, videos, RSS feeds from your Web site, discussions, and many other features that can be incorporated using “Facebook Applications” and customized for each page via FBML (Facebook Markup Language), which allows for detailed code enhancements to the overall look, content and even functionality of fan pages.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are known for their ability to support popular contests, giveaways and promotions. However, in November 2009 Facebook announced a new set of contest and promotion guidelines that affect smaller brands and businesses since any contest that is to be run via a Facebook Fan Page must now be approved by a Facebook representative—who by the way is also happy to sell you advertising packages.

Promotions seem to be a new potential revenue stream for Facebook so you can no longer ask contest participants to post images, messages, or status updates in order to take part in your contest. All contests and promotions via Facebook must now be run from the page via third-party applications. There are several “approved” third-party app providers, including Wildfire, Buddy Media, Context Optional, Fanappz, Involver, theKbuzz, Votigo and Vitrue. Before running a contest on Facebook, you should visit these sites and select a turnkey solution that is guaranteed to run and be approved by Facebook.

It now costs money to develop a higher-level branded promotion, but an alternative approach is to create a contest page on your Web site and then direct your Fan Page members with clues to links on your Web site promoting the contest.

Mix the Old & New

Overall, one of the most important elements of your social media strategy is how well you integrate social media tools within your existing Web presence. Many Web sites do not take advantage of social links, sharing tools and embeddable code that drive traffic between your Web site and your social sites. Even if you decide not to add a blog onto your Web site, you can still highlight key areas of content and include simple links to allow visitors to share these areas across social networks.

Understanding social media concepts can become very complex, as social networks are constantly changing their offerings and available connection tools. The best way to get started is to create and include social media plan elements within your existing business plan. See them as an extension or possible replacement for your traditional media and outreach programs. If you are successful in building a social community following you can have instant access to your customers via a platform that enables sharing much more dynamically than simply replying or forwarding an e-mail newsletter for example. Ultimately, you would need to dedicate resources in order to setup your presence and closely monitor activity and progress along with providing the social sites with current content. Content drives connection activities and online conversations. You can survey your existing employees on their experience in using social media if you plan to launch this using your internal resources.

Companies who have their finger on the pulse of social networking, built a successful following, and know how to manage social programs, include Kodak, ScanMyPhotos.com and Adorama's Used Equipment Department. Some companies such as Kodak have a very large presence across multiple networks whereas others firms, like ScanMyPhotos.com led by Mitch Goldstone, have focused their efforts on a single network, Twitter. There is no “right” answer in developing your presence. Once you begin, it's an ongoing process, but the depth, breadth and sheer volume of users on these networks is sure to prove its value to your bottom line over time.

This overview of Social Networks was presented at the International Business Forum conference in Germany in October 2009.

www.picturebusinessmag.com • January 2010

January 2010 • www.picturebusinessmag.com

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