Bill Wade's brainchild--Company.com--is only about a year old, but he's already got 14 million businesses listed in his directory. Company.com offers SMBs a three-in-one package: It's a marketplace for SMB services; it's a directory of businesses and the professionals that populate them; and, most important, it's a social networking platform.
There are more than 50 products and services in Company.com's marketplace, and they include everything from transaction processing and web hosting to microloans and payroll systems. One partner that often gets referrals from Company.com is Telfair Capital, an Atlanta-based private lender. "Because of Company.com's social media expertise, we don't have to spend a lot of money building an internal salesforce," said Donald McGraw, managing partner at Telfair. "Our CRM systems talk to each other. We update our leads from them on a weekly basis, and it's amazing to see how far they've come in the B2B social media space."
Another Company.com partner is www.gosmallbiz.com, owned and founded by NFL Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton. Since his glory days on the gridiron, Tarkenton has started 20 businesses "from the dirt," he says, including an insurance company and a technology outfit in partnership with IBM.
Today, the former football pro focuses his efforts on giving a voice to the really small businesses (1 to 20 employees) that he believes comprise the bedrock of American enterprise. The company's mission statement, according to its website, is to "help entrepreneurs run and grow their businesses, by providing access to a comprehensive body of knowledge and tools targeted specifically at the micro business." This fall, Tarkenton will debut monthly online training courses for small businesses. "We'll be bringing these folks the greatest thinking today in the small-business arena," said Tarkenton in an interview. "They'll learn about social media, SEO, financing--everything they need to know to make sound decisions. We're bringing technology to that Ma and Pa shop in your town."
Meanwhile, SMBs can use Company.com's directory to locate potential suppliers, partners, and customers. They can also do a search of their own business and claim their profile. Once claimed, a profile can be customized and used to promote a business' product or service.
The driving force behind Company.com is its social network. "One of our main goals is to offer SMBs an environment that allows them to find new customers and make their businesses grow," said founder Wade. "The key is providing a forum where they can share, communicate, collaborate, and recommend each other. I think Yelp has proven that when it comes to making a decision about what products to buy, what restaurants to eat in, what books to read--you name it--there's nothing like a recommendation from somebody you know and trust."
Many, if not most, of Company.com's customers, 99% of which are SMBs, are exploring social media to improve their marketing and woo customers. But Wade cites how difficult it can be to actually cash in on those efforts.
Here are 10 tips he offers SMBs that want to make social networking pay off.
1. Build an audience through consistent messaging; that is, make sure the topics of your social media conversations are relevant and consistent.
2. Look for others with similar interests and partner to expand your audience.
3. Go wide and deep. Broadcast your message across multiple social networks at once. Businesses can use Company.com, for example, to distribute updates automatically to FacebookFan pages and Twitter feeds.
4. Be both a leader and a follower. If you want people to follow you, follow other people.
5. Use social media to share content, best practices, and other knowledge that helps position your company as an "expert" in your field.
6. Be transparent and candid with your communications, and don't speak poorly of the competition.
7. Make an effort to reward existing customers and offer special deals to new ones.
8. Stand behind a charitable cause that's near and dear to your heart. This will help establish brand recognition, engage supporters and followers, and build a positive company image.
9. Communicate that you are listening to your customers and addressing their needs.
10. Encourage feedback and discussions. Instead of aggressively pushing your marketing message, use social media as a tool for letting others sing your praises. Steer away from a business page that reads like an advertisement. Company.com customers can create a free business page where customers, contacts, and vendors can follow them.
Ask your followers for feedback on your promotions and products, and don't get defensive if you get some negative responses. Think about Domino's Pizza: "The CEO openly admitted that the company's product needed some improving, and he focused on what the company was doing to improve it," Wade said. "That paid off in spades."
If you're an SMB in search of contacts, leads, a product or service--or just about anything else--social networking can be a powerful tool that you can't afford to ignore.
Michele P. Warren, a freelance writer and editor, has 15 years of experience covering technology and the channel. She spent 9 years at CRN and was formerly the managing editor of VARBusiness, Long Island Press, and Long Island Business News.
You can't afford to keep operating without redundancy for critical systems--but business units must prioritize before IT begins implementation. Also in the new, all-digital InformationWeek SMB supplement: Avoid the direct-attached storage trap. Download it now. (Free registration required.)