With a smorgasbord of online tools available, starting a new business can seem like an easy venture. But as U.S. News Careers bloggers Miriam Salpeter, owner of Keppie Careers, and Hannah Morgan, owner of Career Sherpa, chronicle in their new book, "Social Networking For Business Success: How to Turn Your Ideas into Income," aspiring entrepreneurs must be strategic when promoting their expertise and services in the Wild West-like world that is the Internet.
Both successful online entrepreneurs, the two authors have carved out a blueprint for how social media and other networking methods can transform a business from an on-the-side-hobby to full-time lucrative career. During their discussion with U.S. News, the Salpeter and Morgan explained how effectively leveraging the Internet can help expand a business and build lasting relationships with customers. Their responses have been edited.
What role, if any, is the current economy playing in persuading people to become online entrepreneurs?
Miriam Salpeter: Today, we cannot expect to be with one employer for our whole careers. In fact, new graduates can expect to have as many as seven different careers – and potentially many more jobs – in a working career. Even more interesting is the trend toward hiring freelancers. Many companies are avoiding hiring full-time workers and are instead seeking experts for short-term or project-oriented work. As a result, everyone who wants to maintain a consistent income needs to think about how to market themselves so key decision-makers will be aware of their expertise.
As the number of freelance workers increases, it will become more and more important for people to have professional websites and social media presences that feature their expertise and allow them to grow their networks so they can compete in this new economy.
What type of businesses could particularly flourish online?
Hannah Morgan: Every business fills a specific need. We think you can monetize almost anything that addresses the market's problems. To be successful, you need to position your goods or services to solve a specific, unanswered need. We suggest budding entrepreneurs ask themselves: "What problems can I solve?" and, "Are there unfilled needs for a product or service I could provide?"
In your book, you stress the importance of naming and branding when building an online business. What are some crucial first steps for establishing your brand?
M.S.: Naming your business is one of the most important parts of becoming an entrepreneur. New business owners need to think about whether or not they want to use their own names in their company's title and if the URL is available. Additionally, they should hone in on their keywords – words people will use to find someone providing the goods or services they provide – in order to name their business effectively. It's important to be able to own all of the social media handles belonging to your business name, so if they are not available, it may be wise to find another name.
Growing and maintaining a brand involves creating strong relationships with potential clients and customers. Business owners can do that online by forming communities and providing useful resources and information. In our book, we showcase many ideas to do just that. When you deliver the "go-to" information everyone in your target audience wants, you become a more obvious choice when it is time to choose a service provider or buy from someone.
With so many online tools available, how can someone narrow down which ones to use?
H.M.: There are two key things for the entrepreneur to ask him or herself: "What network takes advantage of my skills and would be a good place to showcase what I know?" and "Where are my potential clients and customers spending time online?" For example, a business owner who writes well should consider maintaining a blog and using online tools that require strong writing, such as Twitter, for example. If the entrepreneur is a better speaker than writer, perhaps starting a podcast or online radio show would be a good idea.
As for where potential clients spend time, business owners can read research from the Pew Research Center and other online sources about where their audience is, but it's important to gauge engagement, too. If you never have anyone responding to updates on LinkedIn, but your Facebook page is on fire, you know where to spend your time.
[Read: How to Market Yourself on LinkedIn.]
What are some lesser-known social media sites that are effective for spreading the word about a business?
M.S.: All business owners should identify niche sites, if there are any, in his or her field. However, some of the "biggies" are also a little less well-known. For example, Google Plus is a useful site for any business owner because using it helps inform Google about your business. It also has features to literally get businesses on the map if they have physical locations or brick-and-mortar storefronts.
We also like to encourage people to tap into the visual online tools such as Pinterest to showcase pictures or Vine for short videos. While some fields have obvious visual potential, such as artists or interior designers, it's also possible for people in non-visual fields to tap into these communities. For example, anyone can post a stunning visual that accompanies a blog post or article, or share a photo of a happy customer with a testimonial.
What online methods can you use to build and maintain a relationship with a customer well after he or she has used your product or service?
H.M.: In today's ratings-sensitive economy, it's very important for providers to try to capture testimonials and high rankings on sites their customers might frequent such as Yelp! or Amazon. Email marketing is another useful way to keep in contact: Capture your customers' emails and you'll always be able to keep in touch. When you send out useful information, you have a good chance that people will open your messages. Offering good customer support after the sale is also very important to keeping customers satisfied. Many businesses have customer support Twitter handles to offer real-time help, special email addresses or live chat capability. Never overlook the power of great customer service.
It's also possible to maintain relationships by constantly posting great content in all of your social media streams. Give people a reason to want to hear from you, and you stay top-of-mind.
With all the online resources available, are old-fashion networking tactics, like handing out business cards and in-person meetings, still useful for promoting a business?
M.S.: As much as online tools are useful, people like tactical things, too. Some of your clients may not be prepared to exchange contact information via smartphone applications or online tools, so a business card to hand out at an event is still useful. In-person meetings are still crucial to most business owners' success, so we advise our clients to consider social media as a way to market their business and to use it to move to in-person meetings or phone calls to help solidify the relationships that will form the basis of their success.
For more information about the book, visit their website, where a free chapter is available for download.