We’ve written before about the opportunities to connect with customers via the top consumer social networks, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. A small business can use these networks to share company news and insights, communicating to current and potential clients that the company is active and knowledgeable in its area of expertise.
We think nearly every small business can gain from the creation and management of their brand on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, which is becoming just as important as having a great website.
In this post we’ll go beyond the “big three” social networks, and look at a few lesser known sites: Biznik, Fast Pitch!, MerchantCircle.com, and Sprouter. These sites can help a small business find new partners and clients, be found more easily online, and build a reputation.
Established in 2005, Biznik brands itself as a community of entrepreneurs and small businesses dedicated to helping each other succeed through exchanging advice, and establishing business partnerships. Members are encouraged to share what they’ve learned as entrepreneurs, and from running a small business through submitting articles, and by engaging in dialog with other members. Once members connect online, they have the opportunity to meet face to face at events.
The goal, according to Biznik, is to foster collaboration with other small businesses rather than competition. Biznik provides a social environment like other social networks, but it’s more focussed on helping small businesses create the dialog needed to form B2B partnerships, because, after all, companies want to do business with people they know. Biznik helps create this trust.
Fast Pitch! is designed to help companies generate new leads and find more ways to build their businesses. Unlike, social networks such as Facebook that focus on your personal life, Fast Pitch! doesn’t mingle your personal and professional lives. While Facebook has an after-work feel, Fast Pitch! provides a professional environment committed to doing business that’s more suited to the 9 to 5.
Also unlike Facebook, Fast Pitch! provides a comprehensive set of marketing tools to enhance your company’s presence on the Web and beyond, with such services as press distribution, blog promotion, email marketing and direct mail.
MerchantCircle is a social network for local business owners, combining social networking features with customizable Web listings to help merchants attract new customers through referrals based on online advertising.
Members can use their free MerchantCircle account to promote their business by uploading pictures and blogs, publicizing events, offering coupons and sending out newsletters. They can also use it to connect with other merchants.
Unfortunately it is currently only open to US businesses.
With more than 1.4 million member merchants, MerchantCircle has grown to replace traditional directories like the newspaper classifieds for many consumers, allowing them to find local businesses online easily.
MerchantCircle also offers premium online marketing services such as Search Engine Marketing, website directory submission, websites, lead generation and business verification services for local marketing.
Launched in November 2009, Sprouter has quickly grown to become an active online community where small business owners can get advice about their startups — from people who know what they’re talking about. Sprouter lets members anonymously pose questions to renowned entrepreneurs, investors, and small business experts on topics such as law, search engine optimization, and marketing.
Whether you’re a business owner hoping to improve some aspect of your business, or an entrepreneur with expertise and insight to share, Sprouter enables you to connect with a community focussed on helping each other succeed.
One of the most intriguing features of Sprouter is that members can pose questions to the specific expert that will be able to provide the best advice. And if you’re trying to build your reputation as an expert in your field, you don’t have to wait for people to ask you questions; you can comment on another expert’s answer. Adding useful information to an expert’s answer helps you build your reputation in the minds of other members.
The business networks mentioned in this post provide a specialized platform for networking with the customers and business contacts that will help your business grow.
A major benefit of sites like Biznik, Fast Pitch!, MerchantCircle.com, and Sprouter, is the quality of the connections they foster. Rather than attracting hundreds of “friends” and “followers”, these sites, given their focus, tend to attract leads that are more interested in your company, and more serious about doing business with you.
And while many of these specialty business directories are not as big as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, Fast Pitch! CEO Bill Jula says this is not necessarily a disadvantage when it come to standing out: “Your professional presence on social networks is much like being a fish in a pond. You can either choose to participate as a small fish in a big pond (i.e. Facebook, LinkedIn)… where you are constantly competing against millions of other fish for attention. Or, you can participate in a smaller pond (i.e. Fast Pitch), and have a much better chance of becoming the big fish that eventually dominates the pond. Think about it.”
Furthermore, it is important for business owners to know that even though some social networks are popular now, their success can be fleeting given the Internet’s notorious fickleness. Social network Myspace, for instance, became the top social networking site in the US in June 2006 and lost this dominant position in a matter of years as users began to move from Myspace to Facebook. Myspace’s overall site ranking has fallen to 62nd currently (compared to Facebook’s number-two spot), and while it is still relevant to the large number of bands that use it for promotion, it has been largely relegated in social networking to a mere sidenote.
When marketing your small business online it is important to take advantage of social networks beyond the current “big three” in order to make your brand more widely known, take advantage of beneficial partnerships, and ultimately build a stronger business presence.