Here's the question I get asked: How do you use social media to help your business grow?
Social media is so recent, who knows? On the other hand, an active online presence across all kinds of communication technologies is what enhances any online business. Being a person, not a business, is what it's all about these days. In other words, I think wasting a lot of time online as yourself is the key to helping your business grow devoted, repeat customers.
I've logged thousands and thousands of hours online since 1995, when I first dialed up to connect. I've written hundreds of thousands of words (maybe millions, but I lost count after ten). I've posted my heart, soul, thoughts, secrets (consequently, I have few), mistakes, regrets, questions, answers, help, insight, mistakenly-believed-to-be-insightful-at-the-time remarks, quips, jabs, passions, premature commitments, and the odd overstatement-passed-off-as-fact.
In that time, I've cultivated a vibrant online life that has resulted in more in-person meetings than most skeptics of the virtual world would guess (numerous retreats all over the country with online women friends, BBQs with out of state theological pals, meet ups for concerts, coffees and desserts, drop-ins from both a client and two friends moving from point A to point C and Cincinnati turned out to be point B). I've been invited to and spoken at a conference on the strength of a tweet (twitter). I've walked on a beach with a homeschooling mom and her kids when she heard I was in her neighborhood.
I've made local friends and networked myself into a social media community (recent!), I found fellow Obama campaigners through my online life, I discovered fantasy football and U2 fans and the important world of gay rights issues because I loved the movie "Brokeback Mountain." I've contributed to two books as a result of these passions: Get Up Off Your Knees (about U2) and Beyond Brokeback (about the movie's impact) based on posts I'd written. I wound up in a Scot McKnight book because I posted a lot to his blog. Currently I'm working on two projects: Divine Feminine Version of the Bible and a project called Wikiklesia that is focused on women in ministry. Online relationships made both of these happen.
I've made friends in foreign countries and have a strong following of homeschooling mothers in Australia and New Zealand (I will get there and use my business to pay for it, yes I will!).
When someone says to me that they don't have time for a virtual life, I think: I don't have time not to! My richest, most satisfying personal relationships hands-down have come through writing back and forth online. And even the less personal ones have been a rich source of insight, support, and challenge in ways I don't achieve in person. The power of the written word combined with the significance of self-selecting community has revolutionized relationships.
Still, my business is writing and this post is supposed to be about how social media adds value to business. And everything I said above falls into that category. I don't think there is anything you can do to get people to be interested in your business through a couple of tweets a day or a fan page on Facebook. Who cares? You have to start by being interested in other people. The only way to do that is to talk to them about what they care about. For hours. On end. Even when it has nothing to do with your business.
Brave Writer began because I wasted so much time talking to homeschoolers online. I got to know them, enjoyed them, asked them questions, shared my insights; we became friends. We talked about stupid stuff like favorite snack foods we hid from our children. But we also talked about best methods for tackling spelling.
I learned everything I needed to know about how to make a successful writing program by listening to moms tell me what frustrated them about writing and teaching it to their kids. I paid attention. Then I figured out how to meet that need. I ruminated, researched, tested, shared, gave away my ideas, helped moms with no compensation whatsoever. Slowly, I built a little credibility when my ideas worked.
I was lucky. I didn't have to earn money right away. But that first check for $25.00 told me everything I needed to know. I had no website, I had no business name. Yet my first online class in 2000 was full (25 families). And so was the next one, and every one after that for the first five years, even while I raised my prices to over $100.00 per family in that time. I started with my name, and I was known in homeschooling circles because I had spent so much time hanging out, chatting with homeschoolers.
I've hardly advertised (maybe 8 weeks of a banner ad once). Word of mouth, email lists, discussion forums, blogging, and now, the miracle of twitter have accounted for all my business. Simply being transparent, available, and frequently online has been the key to generating interest in Brave Writer. It helps that the mothers (and some fathers too!) I work with are incredibly generous with their ideas, support, issues and needs. We know each other. In some cases, I've worked with every student of a family with eight kids.
To me, the question isn't "How do I use social media to generate business?" but rather, "Who have I connected to today?" Jon used to say that I got paid to give compliments. There's some truth to that. We all need encouragement. If there is one thing I've learned online—most of us are looking for support and reinforcement in our primary commitments. Brave Writer exists to give moms the courage to follow through on their best intentions for writing and language arts, while nurturing their relationships with their kids. Brave Writer provides the resources and support to to get it done. I'm every homeschooling parent's biggest fan and cheerleader. I believe in my committed, devoted, amazing customer/parents. I enjoy them. I learn from them. I like hanging out with them.
To me, that's what it's all about.