Q&A: Social networking to boost your business

If you want to build contacts and market your business to potential customers without spending much money, joining a social media networking website such as Twitter could be the solution

The business world's equivalent of Facebook, these websites offer a free space to display your details and contact like-minded people. Penny Power, founder of the first UK social network for businesses, Ecademy (now known as Sunzu), explains how to use social networking sites effectively.

Why should businesses get involved in social networking?

Penny Power (PP): "In the future businesses are going to be competing in a workplace with people who have learnt to communicate online. If firms don't learn how to, those people will be eating the food off their plate.

"In the 90s, Amazon and eBay created a whole new business model, and they are now wiping the floor with other retailers. It will be the same story for businesses that don't embrace social media. It is crucial to be found, and you just won't be unless you have links all over these social networks."

What are the benefits?

PP: "It increases your visibility on the internet. Social networking is an incredibly low-cost, efficient way of achieving a vast amount of new business, but it's not just about getting sales - it's about getting new ideas, finding suppliers and solving problems. On a social network you bump into people who can help you develop your business. Having a large network of online connections is also a fantastic way to distribute information to a lot of people fast."

What are the costs involved?

PP: "Businesses can join most online social networks, create a basic profile, and search for contacts and exchange messages all for free. Beyond this there may be a cost to use services such as setting up blogs and posting adverts."

How do you encourage people to approach you?

PP: "Set up a profile describing yourself, including both professional and personal information. It's about relationships first, commerce second. If your profile is purely business-orientated, it looks like you only want to sell and are not interested in other people.

"Read people's profiles and reply to them when they contact you. Send messages to people you think you may have something in common with. You should also ask people what they are working on and what they need help with. Offer advice and connections, and clearly explain what you need help with. Then contribute wherever you can to create visibility and show your desire to help."

How do you make it work for you?

PP: "The clearer you are about your expertise, the more influence you will have and the more people you can attract. By posting relevant links - and not just self-promoting ones - you will build a network of contacts who are trying to make a similar contribution to the business world.

"You need to have conversations with people. Share knowledge rather than promoting a product, as people will block you if they feel you are spamming them. Remember, it is called social networking for a reason - you are entering a social world where business happens. Financial success is the byproduct of what you do and must not be your only focus."

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