Just in the last couple of years many professionals discovered the power of social media and how simple it is to connect with existing customers, business contacts, and prospective clients. Social media also offers a tremendous opportunity to learn from others and brainstorm new ideas and solutions for our businesses. In 2009 and 2010, many of us experimented by signing up for new online platforms such as LinkedIn, Twitter and of course Facebook; in 2011 it’s time to make social media marketing a truly integral part of our marketing and communications plans. Getting started with social media may have started as infrequent posting of Facebook status updates; this year I urge you to take your social media efforts to the next level. Here are five tips you can use as you become more comfortable engaging on the various social media platforms. 1. Create an Online Presence Search for your own name at Google.com. Did it come up? If your name didn’t show up, it will not do so when prospective clients look for your name online either. These days consumers are smart. They want to know who their prospective service providers are and what they can expect from working with them. Often they go online and simply search for a name. If they don’t find someone, it’s likely they continue their search until they find someone who’s giving them the information they look for. In order to get a solid online presence and increase your chances of being found online, I suggest you create an account at LinkedIn.com. It’s almost as a virtual rolodex, through which you connect with other professionals and even consumers. Unlike what’s mainly shared on Facebook, the information at LinkedIn is completely professional and business-oriented. You add your current and previous job positions, ask those you’ve worked with in the past to give you recommendations, and join groups through which you can build a solid network. Most importantly, your name is virtually guaranteed to show up on search engines when you have a LinkedIn account.Another way to ensure you’re found in online searches is to set up a profile at Google.com, and add both pictures and videos. 2. Develop a Plan Just like any other marketing effort you should have a well-defined plan on exactly what you’ll do on social media platforms and what you expect to get out of your efforts. Set up specific goals for each platform you’re on, and set a timeline for what you plan to do each week and month. Your goal may be to establish 100 new business contacts in the next six months; engaging in LinkedIn groups, and contributing valuable information and tips on ActiveRain may help you reach that goal. Your goal may be to build closer relationships with those you have in your database; by sharing your insight and knowledge at a blog you’ll be able to better establish yourself as the go-to person for the services you provide. 3. Start Blogging I’m sure you’re often asked the question “What do you do?” Many probably also ask you “Why should I consider Staging my home?” The answers are of course more complex than what you can easily convey in a brief conversation. That brings us to what I consider a great opportunity for 2011: start blogging. When you are asked about something specific related to your Staging and/or Realtor® business, imagine being able to say “Great question, I answer that and many more at my blog. Please go there, and start subscribing to frequent articles I post there.” I view blogging as having your own newspaper to which you invite your professional contacts to learn about what you do, and how you do it. In short, a blog is a highly effective way to communicate your value proposition. It’s also a great way to share pictures of your current and past Staging projects – a great way to showcase what you do! Let me share an example of the impact of blogging. A successful Realtor® who’s been blogging for three years now recently shared with me that often when she receives a phone call interested in hiring her, the caller will often say that they’ve been following her blog for almost a year. Next, they tell her that it feels as if they know her. Blogging truly gives you a great opportunity to bring your business contacts closer. Don’t let somebody else in your local marketplace build the Staging blog of choice among Realtors® and consumers. Be the first one – get started today. 4. Integrate Your Marketing and Communications Activities Social media marketing is not an isolated effort but rather a marketing vehicle that must be integrated with everything else you do. Specifically, make sure you use every offline marketing activity as a way to bring those you’re connecting with to your online platforms. If you regularly reach out in your local community with a postcard, make sure your call to action includes telling the recipients about what they will find at your blog, Facebook page or website. You may add a note on your postcard about a before and after gallery at your Facebook page, or maybe advertising a blog post you wrote about Staging statistics. Let’s say you receive an email from a Realtor® who’s interested in learning about what you do. Rather than just replying with a brief description, consider providing more resources to share your expertise. In your reply email, add a link to an extensive album with before and after photos you’ve uploaded to the free website flickr.com or to your Google profile. Add a link to a video at YouTube.com where you share your process and how you work. 5. Save Time: Syndicate Your Messages I often hear from ASPs® to express their frustration with how much time social media marketing takes. No wonder, they visit every platform every day. While your website contains content you don’t update very often, consider using a blog as your main means of ongoing news updates. Once you’ve set up your own blog you can export your blog articles automatically to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, without having to log on to those networks every time you’ve added an article on your blog. 6. Monitor Your Success How do you know whether your efforts are working, and that your business is visible online? I suggest you sign up for Google alerts. You sign up once, set up alerts for your name as well as business name, and decide whether you want to be notified just as soon as your name is mentioned online. It’s an effective way to always know what’s being said about you online. And, it helps you track your success as your online marketing efforts increase. The best part? It’s completely free. Here are a few other tips on how you can track your success: 1. Facebook. You can track the interaction at your Facebook page by what’s called Insights. It should be displayed in the left side of your screen when you’re logged in on Facebook and viewing your page. 2. Sign up for an account at Addthis.com. Once you have created an account you can add a graphic under every blog post. Addthis.com will then send you a weekly update on how many have shared your articles with others, and to which platforms. 3. You can also sign up for an account at bitl.ly. Rather than sending lengthy link names you can instead shorten them by converting a long link name to a shorter at bit.ly. And, if you have an account and are signed in, you can track how many viewed your link. I hope this week’s business plan tips have been of use to you. Business planning is never an effort you go through once a year and then forget. Instead, it should be an ongoing process, with adjustments as necessary along the year. 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