Entrepreneurs are spending too much time on online social media and have unrealistic expectations about results, says Ivan Misner, founder and chairman of business networking organization BNI.com. Misner, author of 10 books that include his latest, Networking Like a Pro (Entrepreneur Press, January 2010), spends a lot of time teaching small business owners how to market online. He passed along some tips in a recent interview with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
Ivan Misner: There are three problems. They're spending too much time on it, they don't understand how to leverage their time, and they anticipate immediate results, which they're not going to get.
Here's what happens: You go to LinkedIn or Facebook and you read a comment and it takes you to another link and now you're on YouTube, watching someone's video. Pretty soon something weird happens in the space-time continuum and you look up and you've lost two hours.
How should they be leveraging that time?
There are great services they should be using like Ping.fm, Seesmic.com, and Hootsuite.com. You can go there and it ties all your social media together. In other words, they're probably logging on to their Facebook account and going to their page and typing in their message, and then going to Twitter and LinkedIn and doing the same thing. It kills time. If you use sites like this, you write one message and they ping everything so you're not spending 20 minutes to do what you can in three minutes.
Is it okay to post the same content to all your networking sites?
I think it's alright to put the same content on most of them, perhaps with some variation. The key is that you've got to be putting good content up. If all you do is say, "Hey I'm at Starbucks getting a latte," nobody's going to follow you.
You need meaty content, but occasionally a personal touch is good. I was in Big Bear on my deck one time and a bald eagle flew 20 feet above me. I happened to have my camera on hand and I took a shot of it and posted it on Facebook. That was one of the biggest responses I've ever gotten.
You can't go wrong with animals.
It starts a dialogue and that's what social media is all about. That's also why you should respond to some of the comments you get. Say, "thanks," or "that's a good point," or "here's something I forgot." Engage personally—not with every comment, but with at least some of them.
All of this costs very little, but it is time consuming, isn't it?
Here's what I recommend: Set aside a certain time each day, and don't make it prime working hours. Do this at night while you're watching American Idol, during a commercial break. Maybe on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays you post your messages, make comments, and add content. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, do your friend requests.
When I started doing this, I would take bite-sized pieces of my books or articles and make up 50 or 100 of them in 140 characters or less. Then over three or four weeks, I'd Tweet them out or put them on Facebook. I schedule Tweets at CoTweet.com, so the same tweet goes out every six or eight hours when it's in the middle of the day where my clients are on the other side of the world.
There are so many social networking tools and websites. Is it easy to get overwhelmed with choices?
You have to find a system that works for you. If you're looking for the biggest bang from social networking, go with the big three: LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. Then look around and see what else suits you; focus on sites where you like the people. I'm on Ecademy and Xing, which are like LinkedIn, but different.
For instance, the people on Ecademy are highly engaged. It's very much about bulletin boards and a lot of dialogue. I did a blog post that got 25 comments but when I put it on Ecademy, it got 120 responses. So check out groups and find some that suit you and your focus. Just remember that building a powerful personal network is more about farming—cultivating relationships—than it is about hunting.
Does that mindset help avoid those unrealistic expectations?
Entrepreneurs need to understand that social media is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It's a way of building up you, your expertise, and your brand. In my latest book, I talk about a concept called VCP: Visibility, credibility, and profitability. It's a chronological process. You first have to be visible, so you have to get out there and network. Then over time you establish credibility, so people know what you're good at by reading your material, by seeing you in operation face-to-face, and through testimonials.
Only when you've gotten to credibility can you nudge it over to profitability. Networking goes bad when people try to jump ahead of the process. That's why networking sometimes feels so slimy. You're at a business mixer where everybody's passing out business cards and trying to do business when they have no relationship whatsoever. That's not networking, it's direct selling—and it's bad direct selling.
You're the founder of a face-to-face networking organization. Why talk so much about online networking?
Face-to-face networking is not going away in my lifetime. Unless someday it's like in Star Wars, where we have holograms of ourselves that are so big and impressive that we don't have to be at the table, it's still important. It's like a haircut: You have to be present. So whenever there's an option, there's something better about face-to-face. That's why we have 5,600 BNI groups in 44 countries around the world.
But you may want to sell to people all over the world, in places where you can't meet them face-to-face. That's where the online option comes in, and it's powerful word-of-mouth for your brand. Just make sure it's part of your comprehensive marketing strategy. That should include traditional advertising as well as networking.