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SURF THIS: Start benefiting from a social media platform

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Jim Cota

Seems like almost every day a new social media platform is born. If you added them all up, you would easily be in the hundreds. Obviously, all of them are too much for all of us to pay much attention to, but there are a few you should not only know about, but participate in. Here are my top-three recommendations and why I think they could be important to you personally and professionally:

• Twitter (www.twitter.com) is either king of the hill or at least sharing the space with Facebook. The whole service is built around a concept of answering a simple question, “What are you doing?” in concise messages. In its purest form, it’s simply a very short blog. Each post is limited to 140 characters (including punctuation and spacing), so they’re necessarily short and sweet. Twitter usage has morphed into a wide collective of ongoing conversations, a research tool, a news delivery platform, a social network, and, of course, a marketing tool.

One of the most powerful features of Twitter is its search capability. Since it’s an ongoing stream of what people are talking about right now, it can be a gold mine to find out what is “trending” in the collective consciousness. Beyond that, it can be a valuable tool for knowing how your company and brand are being discussed and gives you a non-intrusive way to respond and help shape the conversation.

The conversational nature of Twitter allows you to personify your company or brand, meaning you can address someone’s concerns or questions like a real person, instead of a nameless, faceless organization. The key is authenticity. There’s really no point in blindly “broadcasting” self-aggrandizing tidbits about your company, since you’ll find much better results (and customer satisfaction) by getting involved in ongoing conversations and offering valued insight. (For more on how Twitter works and how to use it, see “31 Twitter Basics” (support.twitter.com/groups/31-twitter-basics). You can find me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jimcota.

• Facebook (www.facebook.com) probably doesn’t need much explanation since it seems like everyone (some 400 million of us) has already arrived at the party. But like any good host, the folks at Facebook are looking around and realizing the party could use some fresh snacks. In response, they’re busy rolling out some interesting features. For businesses, one of the most exciting is its advertising network.

The new ad service allows you to write your ad, upload a photo and select the audience you’d like to target. It’s this targeting mechanism, coupled with the sheer number of people in the audience, that really makes this interesting. You can narrow by a country, region or city. You can choose demographics for age and gender. Last, you can select from any number of interests people have self-selected. Each change you make updates the number of people who’ll be seeing your ad, so you know exactly what the audience looks like.

For example, I can select people within 25 miles of Indianapolis (1,026,000), narrow the age range to 30-64 (532,820), then select an interest like yoga. If you run a local yoga class, you might like to know there are 1,520 people on Facebook who would probably like to know more about you.

You can create a business page on Facebook, of course, and this is probably fine if you don’t already have a website. But you might find it more useful to connect your current site to Facebook and allow people to interact with you there. With the integration of the “like” and “recommend” functions, you can have your site communicate in real time with Facebook, allowing people to like and recommend things they find on your site and have that promoted to their networks on Facebook. It sounds more confusing than it is, I’m sure. To see an example of how this looks, visit this story on CNN (cot.ag/dnSSyi).

• I really like LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com) for business networking. On LinkedIn, you enter your resumé, including positions held, companies where you worked, education, etc. You also round it out with periodic updates about what you’re doing now. Then you begin connecting with people you know by finding others who have also created their LinkedIn profile. These people become your connections, and once you have a few of them, you can begin to see the value here.

Because LinkedIn tries to adhere to fairly strict rules about whom you connect with, the whole service is built upon the idea that the people in your network are people you know and trust. This helps keep the noise to a minimum and allows the network to maintain a high level of integrity. Here’s the cool part: While you know everyone who is a first-level connection, you potentially have access to everyone they know.

So let’s say you’d like to get a job with the University of Indianapolis but you don’t know anyone who works there. However, you do know me, and I happen to have several people in my network who could help. You can contact me and ask for an introduction to someone you’ve identified who could be helpful. Since I know you and I know the others in my network, I can make that introduction with a high degree of comfort, something I probably wouldn’t feel if I didn’t know either of you well.

With the job market continuing to struggle, this type of inter-networking has been the most used feature of LinkedIn in the past few months. As we all know, sometimes it is whom you know that helps get your foot in the door. LinkedIn excels at this type of connectivity. But it can do more.

By harnessing the power of the network, you can post questions to the top three levels of your network, effectively tapping into an unbelievably robust brain trust. For instance, with 488 connections, I have more than 65,000 two degrees away (friends of friends) and almost 4 million people three degrees away (a friend of a friend of a friend). Just consider that for a moment—if you have a question on nearly any topic you can imagine, you’re just a few moments away from asking 4 million really smart people for the answer, for free.

Remember, the whole point of all these social networks is to get involved in the conversation, so join us and tell me what you think. The only thing missing is you!•

__________

Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.

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