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SMO Guide to Social Networking Posted On: 04/06/2011 Last Updated: 04/07/2011

Social Networking is one of the original forms of social media still around on the internet. While social networking offers many potential business benefits, it is one of the more challenging social media platforms to integrate into your business strategy.

What is social networking (online)?

Social networking refers to the kinds of sites whose main focus is to provide structure and build communities of people that enhance interactions, communication, and discussion. Social networking sites have become a way for people to stay connected with their friends and family, catch up with old pals, discover new friends with similar interests, and so much more. From a business standpoint, social networking provides another outlet to engage and interact with customers, as well as a safe way to promote yourself, especially in your business' early days.

What is the best Social Networking site to use?

The social networking world has been turned upside down in recent years with the wane of old giants like MySpace yielding to the tidal wave that is Facebook. These are the two sites most commonly thought of when we talk about social networking. There are, however, hundreds of other sites all that might have something unique to offer your business. Sites like CafeMom, DeviantArt, and Ravelry are all very different sites that fall under this category of social networking. There are also Ning sites, which create little communities based on member's preferences.

Because of its massive population, popularity, and business tools, Facebook would be the "general" service I would recommend the most, however in the interest of fairness, I'll give you some quick profiles on the runaway top three services currently available.

MySpace - MySpace has been around since 2003 and was the first service to really explode into the mainstream. Offering its users very flexible pages and functionality, it quickly became the place to have a presence. Because of the high levels of customization, it can offer a great way to present a unique social network presence. However it has waned in popularity in recent years due to the increased functionality of Facebook.

Facebook - Founded in 2004, Facebook was originally conceived as a way for college students to communicate with each other. For most of its early days, users had to have a college email address to register, which kept the population almost exclusively composed of college students. Facebook has been open to everyone since 2006, and has erupted in popularity with the fastest growing demographic being the older than 25. They offer several business solution tools which make managing your presence from a business perspective easier. With Facebook, you can purchase targeted advertising as well as gain insights into members of a fan page you have.

Ning - The third largest service available is actually hundreds upon hundreds of individual social networking sites. Ning allows users to create specific social networking sites for any reason they like. There is a Ning for ArtFire fans, as well as a Ning just for ArtFire Sneakers. Becoming a member of a very targeted Ning community is also another way to take advantage of social networking.

Should I keep my personal profile separate from my business profile?

This really depends most on your personal preference. There are many reasons you might not want to completely connect your personal presence with your business presence online. To some extent you will have to keep your business presence separate from your personal one as Facebook does not allow a business to have a profile (businesses can have a fan page though). However, there are also benefits to be by proactively making yourself a very visible part of your business.

The best thing to do is decide before you get into the thick of things exactly what you will and won't do. For example, are you willing to "friend" other sellers from your venues? How about customers? Making a rule and sticking to it like "Fans and customers of my business can join my fan page but I'd rather they not see my personal profile" will help you sort out issues that might not arise initially.

If you are up for a little more "managing" of your friends, most social networking sites allow you to group them into different lists or categories. Once grouped you can control how much of your information and your activities they will be able to see.

Now that we have some of those questions out of the way, it's time to talk about how you can use these social networking sites to your advantage as a business owner.  To make things easier we will talk specifically about strategies for Facebook, however most of these ideas can be carried over into other networking sites. I would strongly urge anyone who has yet to open a Facebook account to do so.

Best Practices: A few tips to help leverage the most out of social networking

Be Active - The underlying key to social media is to be a part of the movement, and you just can't do that on the sidelines. You wouldn't read a newspaper if it was the exact same news every day, so make sure you keep things fresh for your friends, fans, and customers.

Start a Page - Facebook fan pages give your business itself a presence on Facebook, and best of all its completely free. You can also get "insights" into the demographics of people fanning your page. Once you're familiar with pages, you can also control how new people see you. Rather than landing on your page’s wall they could land on a Facebook special you're having or on your personal business story. You'll also be able to secure a vanity URL like ArtFire's location: However, if you're interested in paid advertisements, you can purchase and manage your ads on Facebook too, linking back to your studio or fan page.

Be Real - This one might sound counter-intuitive to the personal/private struggle we talked about above, however even if your personal profile is private, you can be a real person on your page and in groups. A seller might be a mother in Washington or a college student in Maine, and that is where a real value proposition gets made. People can see though fake in an instant, so be real and reap the rewards.

Encourage and Engage - You want people to come back to your page, not just fan it and move on. Engage members of your page, post pictures, have discussions, share links, do whatever it takes to get a person to check back later. This will help make repeat visitors out of your fans.

Link it All Together - The giant web of social networking is just a part of the even larger web of social media. Help people find you elsewhere by giving them easy-to-find channels. Link to your blog, show off your ArtFire studio, and bring in photos from your Flickr. By tying together all of your social media efforts you'll be leveraging your brand and providing a consistent face wherever you maintain a presence. You can also set up most of your content submission sites (like your blog) to feed straight to Facebook so that you don't have to manually add links each time.

Fill out Your Profile –This goes for every social media site, but especially social networking sites. Take the time to fill out your information so that people can read about you or your business. Nothing is more frustrating than getting a friend request from someone who hasn't take