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Are People Talking About You?

Using social networks as an effective referral source
by Martin Lieberman, Constant Contact Managing Editor

Want to know an effective way to grow your customer base? Get your current customers and members to talk positively about you to their friends and family. Word of mouth is a main tenet of referral marketing and a task made a bit easier with today’s many social media tools.

It’s like when you get a stack of business cards from a company that’s hoping you’ll give them to family and friends as a referral. Your presence on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and the content you post or share, is like a business card that can be easily referred to and "passed along" to friends and associates. Getting your customers to refer you can be as simple as sharing good content that’s worth passing along.

Now, I realize that as with many things, sharing good content is easier said than done, but I have a few tips to help get you started.

Be there or be square

For the purposes of this article, we’re talking specifically about Twitter and Facebook, since those are the most popular of the social networks. It’s also assumed that you have an account on one or both of these sites already, and maybe even a Facebook Fan Page. If you don’t have accounts already, what are you waiting for? Get those toes in the water.

That said, do your customers or members even know you have a presence on Facebook or Twitter? I find that people are not actively looking for specific businesses or people to friend/follow. Rather, they stumble on them in many ways. Part of this is because of the poor search capabilities on the sites, made worse if you have a common name.

Make sure your customers or members "stumble" upon your presence by putting links to all your appropriate social media accounts in your newsletters and in the signature of your regular email account. If you have a store, office, or donation site that gets a lot of visitors, put up a sign announcing your presence on these sites. That’s how I learned my mechanic was on Facebook, for example.

Have something to share

The content you put on these sites does not have to be exclusive (though that helps). You can link to articles from your newsletters and blog posts. Use your social networks to gauge what your audience is thinking (based on their comments and what they’re passing along) and use that to base your content. It’s better to give readers content in their wheelhouse than to assume a topic is of interest.

For instance, a natural food store might be planning a "How not to overdo it at the holidays" article, but if customers on their social networks are talking more about the seasonal flu, then maybe a change of plans is in order. A better article might be about foods and natural ways to prevent the flu, something that would get shared quickly with friends.

Similarly, a nonprofit organization could post an article about the causes it supports, but if people on social media sites would rather share inspirational success stories about how your work has helped others, then that’s the content you’ll want to post.

If you’re keyed into what people are talking about and you provide them with materials that can advance the conversation, your customers will more likely become evangelists for you.

Ask them to share

Finally, ask people to share your stuff with their circle of followers. Say you’re a restaurant that’s offering half-priced appetizers tonight or a nonprofit that’s hosting a special event. In your Tweet or Facebook post announcing the special or the event, ask people to "Retweet" (or RT) through Twitter and Share it on Facebook (a simple "Please RT" or "Pass it on" will do the trick). On Twitter, make sure your total character count is less than 120 to make it easier for customers to forward it along without having to rework your post to fit inside the 140-character limit.

One note of caution: Don’t overdo it with the straight-out retweet requests or sales pitches. I subscribe to the 80/20 rule, with 80% of your social network posts being educational in nature while the other 20% are more straight sales pitches. A constant stream of "Please share" or "Please retweet!" will turn off your customers.

Don’t miss out

Managing content across multiple social networks might sound like a major drain on your time. My advice is that if you’re good at managing your time with other things, you will be good at managing your time with social media6 as well. The basics of marketing do not change, it’s just the tools that are a bit different.

You don’t want to be left out or miss out on something that will open up a new area for your business. I’m not suggesting you go crazy with social media. Instead, it should just be a compliment to your existing efforts.