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It's tough to blame them. The sites and features change regularly--as does the menu of services and advice that swirl around. There aren't many consensus metrics for measuring business effectiveness, either. (What's a Facebook "like" worth to a real estate brokerage, for example?) Yet the social boom doesn't show many signs of slowing--recent Pew Research Center data shows nearly half of U.S. adults are on at least one site.
Constant Contact has rolled out a new site for small companies hoping to engage with that growing audience, but are either unsure of where to begin or how to take a planned, results-oriented approach, rather than simply firing blindly and hoping social efforts hit their intended targets. The online marketing firm's Social Media Quickstarter is a free educational service; essentially, a crash course in the fundamentals of social media for smaller businesses. Mark Schmulen, Constant Contact's GM for social media, said in an interview that while some SMBs are very socially savvy, others find that it resides outside of their wheelhouse.
"They're very much domain experts--they're the best tax accountant out there--but when it comes to technology and marketing, there are things they know they should be doing or think they should be doing," Schmulen said. "We don't think that this is going to appeal to every small business out there, but certainly the larger market--they need help."
Though Constant Contact traces its roots to email marketing, which remains a core business, it has invested more heavily in social media and related applications of late--and in taking a more integrated approach to online marketing. Earlier in the year, for example, it acquired social CRM startup Bantam Live to build out its cross-channel platform. Constant Contact has roughly 450,000 small business customers.
The big social stars are all present and accounted for in Quickstarter: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube are among the topics covered, as are location-based services, blogging, and QR codes. Schmulen said the site will be a "living, breathing resource" updated over time to reflect the evolving social landscape. Though there is some basic integration for existing Constant Contact customers, and some simple branding on the site, it appears overall to avoid the advertorial pitfall.
The Quickstarter crash course is decidedly pro-social--the overall message might be summed up as: "Do it." It is largely focused on marketing and other external uses, and will likely appeal most to consumer-oriented businesses. But the information does go into a fair amount of depth--without getting too complex or content-heavy--on various topics that keep small businesses up at night, or that might be keeping them nonsocial. Such as: What to do about negative ratings and reviews on sites such as Yelp? (Answer: Embrace them and treat them as an opportunity to engage with a customer.)
In general, Schmulen said that some of the potential risks for SMBs inherent in social media are simply the way of the modern business world. Nor does staying off of social sites necessarily mean a business doesn't have a social presence: In an era when half of the online American population is on Facebook, Twitter, or a comparable site, a company might very well be talked about whether it's a part of the conversation or not.
"[SMBs] are afraid of what people are going to say about them if they open up this outlet to let people provide feedback to them," Schmulen said. "Especially if you're a consumer-facing business, you have limited control over your brand today. It's just a fact of the times that we live in today."
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