Q: My college-aged niece will gladly set up my Facebook account and similar sites for my business at no cost, but I've heard some companies pay many thousands of dollars for social media campaigns. I must be missing something. What is it?
A: Actually, you're missing about 95 percent of the effective social media tactics.
Social networking sites, such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and LinkedIn, are fun and interactive. But for home builders who want to see large increases in qualified buyer traffic on their Web sites, participation in these sites is the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
Think of your business as a home. The core purpose of your business and your actual work provide your foundation and the framework. Your customer relations and interactions build out the walls. Your marketing and public relations programs - including social media - give your home curb appeal. They are the façade revealing interesting architectural details and the large windows inviting passersby to take a look inside.
And you might say that social networking sites such as Facebook are the welcome mat. They're sitting right there in front of the door, but experience shows they're not going to bring the buyers inside. Without all of the other pieces supporting them, chances are no one will notice them at all.
First things first
Social media marketing should be an extension of a complete strategic Internet marketing, SEO (search engine optimization) and/or public relations campaign. A sound social media strategy ends with, rather than begins with, social networking sites.
The first steps involve creating the virtual pieces that will build upon each other. Start with a sound Web site. If your site isn't built correctly, with proper keywords, title tags and SEO, then there's no point in following up with social media. Upon your properly built site, you place your properly built blog.
Bowen Family Homes, a regional home builder based in Atlanta, recently launched www.BowenFamilyHomesBlog.com as their formal entry into social media marketing. Their goal was to increase keywords and referring URLs for their Web site. At the time of this writing, just 20 days after launch, the new blog ranks fifth among the corporate Web site's referral sources, and it was on page one of their search engine results pages (SERP). Already, there were 27 referring URLs to the blog.
Why go to the trouble to start your own blog when you can use one of the free sites to post your news? First, if you don't own it, you cannot fully control it. When Facebook recently changed the format for business member pages, thousands if not millions of businesses were sent scrambling in response. Second, the applications you need to optimize your blog may not work on sites you don't control. And finally, it's not always possible to integrate someone else's site - with the idiosyncrasies of their codes and formatting - into your overall strategy for optimizing your online presence by interconnecting the items you post.
Where do we go from here?
"If you build it, they will come" does not apply on the Internet. Now you have to promote the sites you've built online. This requires taking a careful inventory of your goals, the audiences you wish to reach, and the online places those audiences visit. Strategies will differ for each home builder based on location, housing types, price points and any number of factors.
In many cases, free social networking sites are used to spread the word about other facets of your social media program. However, you must remember that the power is not in the act of networking, but in optimizing. That means each networking site and each blog post should be filled with key words and other directional signs that will point qualified buyers back to your Web site. More specifically, you want visitors to make their way to your "contact us" page. That's the only way you can turn qualified buyers into homeowners.
But what about cost?
"There's no such thing as a free lunch" definitely does apply on the Internet. Social media programs require a significant investment of time and, usually, money. A recent BusinessWeek article (http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/feb2009/tc20090218_335887.htm) listed $50,000 as the budget for an effective, two-to-three-month social media marketing campaign. Can it be done for less? Yes, much less. Can it be done for more? Most certainly.
Social media marketing professionals encourage clients to evaluate their return on investment. Like Bowen Family Homes, most clients are looking for an increase in key words (the number of words people use to find the site through search engines), referring URLs (other Web sites that send traffic your way), increased traffic on the Web site, and ultimately, increased sales. These indicators can be measured through analysis of tracking reports, which Internet marketing firms typically create at regular intervals.
As a home builder, you wouldn't want just anyone to build or remodel your own personal home. You're going to trust professionals with proven experience.
It's the same with social media marketing and social networking. This is your business. You're creating curb appeal and inviting potential buyers into your figurative home. With social media, you can do it yourself or have your niece do it, but if your foundation isn't properly built, it can actually hurt your rankings in the search engines. Getting it right the first time is worth the investment.
"This article originally appeared on the NAHB Sales and Marketing Channel, a member benefit of NAHB's National Sales and Marketing Council (NSMC). Find out how to join NSMC and access the Channel for free. Non-members may purchase a subscription to the Channel here."