When you don’t have a massive marketing budget you need to be careful how you spend what you have and try to find alternate methods to promote your business.

Promoting your business shouldn’t be just about the sale. Of course you need to make sales, but there are better ways to interact with people than just trying to sell people your products and services.

This is where “social media” comes into the picture.

“Social Media” for us as a company has gone from being almost an “afterthought” to being one of our more focussed online channels. It helps us provide customer service to our clients, while also helping to drive sales and get feedback on new product and service ideas.

Unfortunately there are a hell of a lot of “buzzwords” and inane claims being made by people about how social media can help companies. A couple of years ago everyone was told that they needed to have a blog, now they’re being told that Twitter and Facebook are the “one true way”.

Sure, there is some truth in it, but the reality is that a lot of people don’t really understand how it works and a lot of the people advising them are out for very short term benefit. (I’d love to know how many “social media” related businesses have sprung up over the last couple of years!)

For many companies they’d be better off ignoring Twitter and Facebook rather than setting up profiles across multiple social media networking site and services and not actually using them actively. This may seem to be counter-intuitive, but in reality it’s not.

You’ll have to excuse the analogy, but if you’re never going to answer the phone or make a phone call, would you continue paying line rental?

While a company that actively engages and adopts social media as part of its business processes can benefit (and I know we have), unless you are willing to really “dive in” it’s probably going to do you more harm than good.

So what has been our experience to date?

Bear in mind that some things we’ve done probably wouldn’t suit everyone, but I’ll share them anyway.

We have been actively engaging with the public via discussion forums, blogs and mailing lists since we first started out over 7 years ago. The “explosion” in social media hasn’t changed that. All that’s really changed is the media that we use.

I’ve posted some of the statistics of our usage etc., in the past, so let’s revisit them again.

Twitter can be a fun medium, though when things go wrong you need to be able to respond as quickly as possible. We have hooked both this blog and our status one into our Twitter account, so that all our blog posts, be they news or service related, get distributed to our Twitter followers. We have experimented with adding in other RSS sources, such as our forum, to our Twitter account, but the results weren’t favourable.

Apart from news, customer service stuff and technical service related messages, we’ve also used Twitter to run a variety of “silly” competitions and other promotions. We view them as “silly” and “fun” and based on the feedback we’ve had from clients they seem to get a “kick” out of them as well.

In terms of our follower count it has been growing, but I wouldn’t consider that to be the most valuable metric. When talking about social media you need to remember that the important thing is the “social” side of it. You need to interact!

Twitter Counter chart August 2010We do use the web interface sometimes, but generally speaking we use 3rd party services to read and respond.

As you can see the most popular client for us is Tweetdeck, which we use on both desktop machines and mobile phones (iPhone). The only thing to be wary of if you’re using a single client to handle multiple accounts is not mixing up the accounts! (We’ve all made that mistake in the past and it could be potentially embarassing!)

twitter client usageYou’ll also notice that we’re using Twitterfeed, which pulls in any RSS source you throw at it and Facebook. Anything we post on our Facebook wall gets automatically sent to Twitter as well.

We recently setup a custom branded URL shortener so you’ll see tweets from @blacknight and various members of our staff referencing blacknig.ht.

And since I mentioned branding….

If you’re tweeting for business then you need to do it separately from any personal account that you may have. You should also spend a bit of time customising the avatar and background to fit in with your company’s branding. We got our designer to do custom backgrounds for our main account and those of several staff members, so if you go to our accounts in a browser you’ll see our branding is retained.

Facebook is a slightly different beast.

We’ve been using it in pretty much the same way that we’ve been using Twitter, so it’s also being used to pull in posts from both blogs, as well as a channel to promote special offers and deal with customer service queries.

There is one notable downside to Facebook. There is no way to know if someone has posted on your “wall” unless you actually go there and check, so it’s very easy to miss time-sensitive queries. To help counter this we added our primary contact details to the sidebar.

But what about actual metrics?

Here’s a breakdown of our Facebook page:

Facebook InsightsThe page has grown in popularity steadily over the last year and you can clearly see that our audience is primarily male and Irish!

Making sense of Facebook stats isn’t that easy, as they use a lot of their own jargon, but “interactions” are pretty self-explanatory:

Facebook InteractionsWe tend to see spikes in activity if we run promotions or competitions

Over the past year we’ve run several promotions via Twitter and Facebook. While the uptake on them has been very good we’ve also been reminded more than once that not everyone is using them, so cross-posting coupon codes and other offers to our main blog or via our email newsletter has paid dividends. To that end we also setup a dedicated site just for our latest offers and coupon codes.

Going where our customers are (or could be) is essential, so we keep an active eye on discussion forums and mailing lists where people might be talking about us or the services that we offer. While there are several monitoring tools available Google Alerts works very well most of the time.  We also use Twitter’s search functions pretty heavily!

Another area that we’ve found helpful has been video. Using tools like Camtasia or iShowU it’s quite easy to put together tutorials and screencasts to help our clients make the most of our services. Admittedly we haven’t posted a new video in quite some time, but it’s on our ever growing todo list! And since we don’t like being overly constrained by 3rd party services we’ve been cross-posting our videos to multiple video sharing sites using a combination of blip.tv and TubeMogul.

So what if any advice can I / we give you?

I guess the sanest advice is as follows.

If you’re thinking of using social media to help your business then that is commendable. However if you’re going to do it setup a personal account first and see how people use (and abuse) the various media first. A common issue I’ve seen with businesses attempting to use social media is that they don’t understand how people use it, as they haven’t watched at all and simply dived in. If you take a bit of time to observe and learn you’ll probably gain a lot more.

There are an ever growing number of tools and services available to help people and businesses use social media and a lot of them either don’t cost anything or are incredibly cost-effective.

We intend to keep using social media to communicate and interact with our clientele as we feel that is working for us.

There are probably a lot of things we could be doing and things we might be able to do better, but we’re always willing to try new things!

In closing, though I started this off thinking about our experiences as a registrar and hosting provider I guess most of what we’ve done would apply to any company that offers services.. Maybe I should change the title?

Metrics pulled in from Facebook, Tweetstats and Twittercounter