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The Independent Investor: Why Social Media is Important to Your Business

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires Columnist
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Bill Schmick
It's bigger than the entire television viewing audience of the United States. It is growing faster than all the world's economies put together. It can be just what you need to invigorate your business and all it takes is a computer. So what exactly is social media?

We usually refer to it as "the Internet" but that's not quite accurate. The Internet is where we go to blog or to find a blogger, to access Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, to name four of the most popular sites, but it encompasses much more than those sites. 

Today there are roughly 850 social networks available but by the end of the year there could be as many as 250,000. To say that this is a growth business would be an understatement.

Wikipedia states that social media "is information content created by people using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques. At its most basic sense, social media is a shift in how people discover, read and share news, information and content."

Traditional newspapers, for example, can tell you all about how social media has undermined their business. Citizen journalists using social media have sprung up in every corner of the globe. Today there are over 20 million bloggers (myself included) and 455,000 of them are full time and making money from it.

Facebook, where users can join networks organized by city, work place, school and region as well as connect with friends, is valued at $15 billion although it has barely turned a profit.   

Consider this: in the middle of the worst recession and market decline since the Great Depression Facebook grew last year from 66 million to 175 million subscribers. It is estimated that 20 percent of the population of Canada is on Facebook. Suffice it to say that social media is only going to get bigger.

Ninety-three percent of Americans believe that companies, big and small, from Fortune 500 to Mom-and-Pop grocery stores need a social media presence. Imagine how fast your business could grow if you could tap those billions of social network users. And don't think this is purely a game for the young or young at heart. 

Take Twitter, the free social messaging utility for staying connected in real time that is exploding in usage. Roughly 10 million twitters in February worldwide were over 35 years old with 45- to 54-year-olds 36 percent more likely than average to visit and use Twitter.

So what can it do for you and your business? For the first time in marketing history you can actually talk "with" and not "at" your client or customer. It opens up a two-way street with your targeted audience whether she is a prospective auto buyer, a vegetarian shopper or a vacation home prospect. 

Social media allows you to pass on information about your product or services and build a relationship with the end client wherever they are in the world at relatively low or no cost.  All it takes to get started is time, effort and the willingness to research on the internet.

"There is a community out there for any business," says Ken Blass of Chatham, N.Y.-based Blass Communication, "so find a community that fits you."

If you are in the wine-making business or running a home-decorating service or offering any service or product, find out what media outlets are available to you on Facebook, Twitter or among the millions of blog sites by simply querying Google or another search engine.  

Focus on your target market. Given my interest in the financial markets, for example, I signed up in a Twitter community called stocktwits.com that allows me to twitter or talk to stock traders all day long. I can pitch in with my own insight or opinion anytime I want. It is only one of two dozen social media sources I use.

"At the very minimum, every business should have a Web site and a blog," argues Rob Johansen of MidHudson Media, "either do it yourself or hire someone to do it for you."

That's good advice. I have followed both routes. As a self-confessed computer illiterate, I could barely send an e-mail four years ago. Today I have my own Web site, blog and can even post this column via the Internet. 

At times when I just couldn't get to first base with something technical I hired a pro to get me through the problem but at other times I persevered and did it on my own. I suspect I learned more that way. I am even now working on my first podcasting (radio broadcasting via the Internet) venture. On most weekends, you will see me leafing through one of those ubiquitous black and yellow books for dummies. I don't get it right away but the point is I'm willing to invest the practice time until I do. 

In starting a Web site or blog, the important thing is to do your research, surf the Web, identify the top-tier influencers in your marketplace and learn from them. Walk before you run. I spent months reading blogs and looking at Web sites before I started my own. It was worth it. 

So if you want to expand your business, start with social media if you haven't already. It's cheap, effective and the future of marketing in just about any enterprise.

Bill Schmick is a registered investment adviser representative and portfolio strategist. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-518-610-1553 or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. You can also visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights
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By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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