Vistage Members March 15, 2010

Social networking sites can help generate new business

Vistage member Paul McErlean had a great article published in The Irish News last week 09/03/10. Discussing his experience of the benefits of social networking for business and his Vistage membership.  Please find the article below:

In the run-up to Christmas last year, I was introduced to a business organisation called Vistage. At first I was sceptical because I thought it was another one of these sales networks, the type of organisation where the members meet for breakfast on a regular basis and are expected to generate sales leads for each other. I was wrong.

I'm now a paid-up member of Vistage, which was started 50 years ago in the US and now has over 15,000 members around the world. When you join Vistage, you join a local group (there are two in Northern Ireland) of up to 15 other people - typically they're business owners or lead directors, led by a facilitator and coach, who chairs the group. So far, I'm getting great value from my membership and feel pretty humbled that the people sitting round my group table, all of whom are running businesses much larger and more successful than mine, have accepted me and are prepared, when asked, to bring their collective knowledge to bear for my benefit.

Last month, we were given a brilliant presentation by a guy called Ed Charvet who was speaking on the topic of ‘Extracting Commercial Value from Web 2.0.’ Doing my best not to get into internet jargon, it was basically a talk on how to win business using the web and in particular, social and business networking on the web (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In etc). Working in the field of public relations, this is a topic we are very involved with on behalf of our clients and one of the other members, the owner of a diversified group of companies including a large and successful marketing services arm, similarly provides professional advice in this area. Some others in the group have relatively large amounts of sales going through on the web and others, such as those in the construction and agriculture related sectors, would have had little exposure to the practices discussed by Mr Charvet. However, no matter where we were on the knowledge spectrum of these issues, I think we all came away from the session thinking very differently about social networking and its value to business.

 For many people over thirty, the social networking explosion  is what the New York Times described as ‘modern narcissism taken to a new, supermetabolic extreme – the ultimate expression of a generation of celebrity addled youths who believe their every utterance is fascinating and ought to be shared with the world.’ I have a fair bit of sympathy with that position and don’t have the time and am not really interested in the daily minutiae of too many of the 350 million users that Facebook now claims to play host to or the 26 million people, projected to be signed up for Twitter this year. But what about when you boil it down to small business – for instance Curtis Kimball who opened his crème brûlée cart in San Francisco last year and after a few weeks of business, noticed a stranger among the friends queuing for his desserts. Kimball asked the man how he’d discovered the cart – the man said that he’d read about it on Twitter. Kimball signed up for his own account and now has more than 5,000 followers who wait for him to post the current location of his travelling cart and list the flavours of the day.

Much has been made elsewhere of how big companies like Dell, Starbucks and Sony use Twitter to promote their products and answer customers’ questions. But today, small businesses outnumber the big ones on the free ‘microblogging’ service – micro-blogging meaning that you have only 140 characters to say what you’re going to say. As a result of the Charvet meeting, I went to see one of the pioneers of the social media networking world in London the week before last and he told me he’d won two £50,000 contracts off the back of Twitter in recent months. Sounds easy, but then it’s important to understand that he is a well-followed and well-connected figure on the various sites and his chances of generating business are far greater than those who are only starting their journey.

Having said that, in getting ready for our monthly meeting this week, I see from one of my Vistage colleague’s monthly reports that the adoption of one immediate social networking practice through Linked-In, preached to us at the Charvet meeting, has already yielded three good quality sales leads for his business. And this was from one of the members in the construction sector who hadn’t really considered social networking as a potential sales generator before.

The bottom line is if you’re in business, you can’t ignore this stuff, not if you want to compete and win in a very changed environment where the digital world has a definite role to play alongside good old fashioned face-to-face and telephone contact.  In my view, that’s the way to think of the potential of social networking in business terms – a forum for getting better information, allowing you to make better decisions and ultimately, to win new business.

Paul McErlean is Managing Director of  MCE Public Relations.

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