In the beginning, there was the bulletin board system, an online meeting place (accessed over telephone lines using a modem) that enabled users to communicate with a central system where they could download files or games and post messages. Although restricted by slow data transfer speeds and limited to text only, bulletin board systems gained in popularity well into the 1990s, along with the use of services such as CompuServe and America Online (AOL), the latter of which is considered to be the true precursor to today’s social networking sites.

“Social networking has been around almost since the advent of the Internet,” said Paul Chaney, Internet marketing director for Bizzuka, Lafayette, La., and the author of “The Digital Handshake.” It can take the form of the more passive e-mail or of forums and blogs, which qualify more accurately as forms of social networking since they allow for user interaction. “However, the heyday of social networking didn’t really start until the early to mid part of the first decade of this century, with the advent of social networking sites, like Friendster and Ryze, a predecessor to LinkedIn,” Chaney said.

Today, social networking sites are defined as Web-based services that allow individuals to construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, assemble a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system, according to Danah Boyd from the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and Nicole B. Ellison from the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media at Michigan State University. Currently, there are no reliable data to indicate how many people use social networking sites, but it’s obvious they are growing in popularity.

Today, the most commonly used social networking sites are Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Viewed by sheer numbers, MySpace is still considered popular, but it has a high abandonment rate, Chaney said.

At its launch in 2004, Facebook was restricted to users with a Harvard University e-mail address. Even as it grew to support other universities, it remained an intimate, private community that was restricted to users with university e-mail addresses. Beginning in 2005, Facebook expanded to include high school students, then professionals inside corporate networks, and, eventually, everyone everywhere.

Then came Twitter. With a constant river of conversation about any and all topics, Twitter is really a social instant messaging application limited to 140 characters per post, which differs in application from the other sites.

“I refer to LinkedIn as your business suit, in that it is designed strictly as a tool for business interactions. Facebook is business casual, and Twitter is a virtual social networking party you attend after hours,” Chaney said.

Social network marketing

As the demographics of both workers and customers change, so do the dynamics of marketing. Marketers are using more online promotional tools, including search engines, blogs, podcasts, really simple syndication (RSS) and social networks.

According to Barb Mosher, a Web solution architect for Suite 101, social network marketing is fast on the rise and is currently the second most popular online marketing tactic. Companies can create a group or network that people join, and companies demonstrate and share their knowledge and expertise to this focused group of individuals. According to Mosher, some companies go so far as to create a profile on sites, such as Facebook or MySpace. These profiles are similar to blogs in that they allow a business to share their knowledge and give the company a more personal appeal. (For more on this, see Editor’s Eye, page 6.)

“There is ample evidence to suggest that people do appreciate businesses [that] have a presence inside these social networks, so long as they play by the rules and don’t abuse the privilege,” Chaney said.

Social networks provide a place to turn a stranger into a friend and a friend into a customer. They build on the advantages of word-of-mouth marketing that are inherent within many networks.

“The biggest benefit of using social networking sites for marketing is that it demonstrates the company’s capabilities, culture and philosophy,” said Steve Witz, vice president at Continental Electrical Construction Co., Skokie, Ill.

Continental has already begun using sites such as YouTube to broadcast video messages to employees and has used e-blasts for major announcements. During the first half of 2010, Continental will join Facebook as a company entity.

“It’s a necessity to be part of the trend to demonstrate that the company is on the cutting-edge of technology. Facebook is really another communication tool to showcase our abilities,” Witz said.

Currently, Valley Electrical Consolidated Inc., Girard, Ohio, promotes the company on social networking sites only through employees’ own pages.

“Company promotion occurs as they discuss their lives and careers online with friends and industry colleagues,” said Rex Ferry, president and CEO, and president of the National Electrical Contractors Association.

For an initial marketing contact, Dave Washebek, president of Lemberg Electric Co. Inc., Brookfield, Wis., believes social networks are just fine.

“But in my opinion, after the initial communication is established online, you need to fall back on traditional marketing and communication to maintain and improve the relationship,” Washebek said.

Strategies

Because electrical contractors (ECs) operate in a business-to-business (B2B) environment, Chaney sees sites, such as LinkedIn and Twitter, as playing vital roles.

“LinkedIn is important from the standpoint of connecting contractors with potential business partners, vendors and other stakeholders,” he said.

Plus, putting themselves “out there” on LinkedIn provides another brand-building opportunity and a place where contractors can differentiate themselves from the competition. Twitter also works well, Chaney said, as a notification and messaging system and is a great way to meet new people as well.

Contractors that are considering the use of social media as a marketing tool need to understand that the value of the network created lies in the quality of the contacts included, not the quantity, and once you’ve established a list, it’s important to be judicious in its use. It’s great to send notes and information to your contacts and customers, but if you send too many, those notes are less likely to get read or you might even be dropped as a contact.

“It’s all about trust. People want to do business with people they trust,” Chaney said.

Training and skills

“Often, companies make social networking a function just of the marketing or public relationship departments, but it should cut across divisions and departments,” Chaney said, adding that reaching such a level demands that companies embrace the concepts and philosophy of social networking, which requires training.

“It’s important to train everyone in your social media strategy,” Ferry said. “You never know who will take the most advantage of the opportunity and develop it further for the company.”

Washebek also believes that everyone at the company needs to be informed of its media strategies so that they can participate effectively. “However, it’s most important to train project managers and sale personnel because they are the people with the closest client contact,” he said.

Because social network marketing is different than traditional marketing, additional skills are required. Traditional marketing broadcasts a message in a single direction, while social media engages consumers in conversations inside communities where there is shared interest and relevance.

“Social media still rely on targeting the appropriate audience, but it engages that audience in conversation, builds trust and gains permission to engage further,” Chaney said.

That means a long-term vision and patience is essential in using social networking sites as marketing tools. In addition, its people-centric nature means the company’s marketing personnel need to be able to educate, inform and interact without pushing.

“Think of marketing via social networks the same way you would use a face-to-face social networking event and don’t use it as just another selling channel,” Chaney said.

According to Ferry, to remain successful, a business has to keep structurally changing and social networking sites are going to change the way people and businesses communicate.

“The successful contractor will not fight that change,” Ferry said.

Since young people use social networking sites to communicate, Witz said a company’s marketing skill set must include the willingness to embrace new technologies and ways of communicating.

Washebek cautions that presentation on social networking sites better be near perfect.

“You can’t allow any misunderstandings to occur, particularly since what you are saying online represents the company,” Washebek said.

For any marketing tactic to be considered successful, there must be a way to measure its effectiveness. Web solution architect Mosher suggested thinking about which social networks to advertise or join and to learn to track the appropriate conversion rates. Without tracking, you are not marketing, and successful marketing in today’s climate requires an online social networking component.

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 and darbremer@comcast.net.