Social media can benefit almost any company's business model

Donovan Colbert shares his social media "Aha" moment. He believes that when the principles of multi-tiered marketing and quick, cross-linked data distribution that social media delivers are properly leveraged, it benefits almost any company's business model.

When I was still new to TechRepublic, I read one of Jason Hiner's posts about the four stages of a typical Twitter user, but I didn't get it. Twitter seemed to exist primarily as a means for teens to text to the public and for Ashton Kutcher to engage in self promotion. The practical application for everyone else, especially the business world, wasn't apparent to me.

It wasn't until I started publishing articles that I had my Twitter "Aha" moment. I was ego-surfing (doing a Google search on your own name, for those who might be unfamiliar with the term) and came across a blogger and social media expert who had posted a link to one of my Apple articles on her blog. This was a first for me, realizing that other people reading my articles might like them enough to post links. I thanked her in her forum section, we got into a discussion, and I ended up following her on Twitter.

Suddenly, I realized how Twitter could help me reach a larger audience. If I tweeted an article, and three of my followers re-tweeted that article to their friends, I could reach hundreds of people who weren't directly following me. Likewise, if just a few of the followers of each of those individuals re-tweeted, my potential grew exponentially. Twitter was no longer just a way for teens to share every waking moment of their day with their social circle - like-minded professionals were also sharing information in a giant pyramid scheme.

Once Twitter fell into place, the rest of it started to make sense too. I always had my own blog, where I would post political perspectives, random musings, and other things not related to TechRepublic. A man can't live and breathe on bashing Linux alone, after all.

I also had a personal Facebook account. It took me awhile to realize that all of these had an important place in a social networking strategy. I began to consolidate my online presence with a similar profile image and by linking different social media outlets to share data and streams. As I did this, I picked up new followers, and in turn, their recommendations or re-tweets would lead me to other Twitter users who I would follow.

On a couple of occasions, since I really started putting effort into Twitter, other bloggers have read and re-tweeted my personal blogs, and my hit numbers jumped from the typical one or two to 20 in a single day. That isn't anything, mind you - but it was a huge increase over what I was seeing without Twitter.

The executive staff at my office traditionally had zero interest in social media, and I hadn't pursued it with them. But slowly, I began to realize that the same benefits I was seeing in my side pursuit as a blogger could be leveraged for them. The problem before had been that I didn't know how to begin the dialog, because I simply couldn't define what social media offered the company. However, the "Aha" moment opened my eyes to the principles of multi-tiered marketing and quick, cross-linked data distribution that social media delivers - and these, properly leveraged, are a benefit to almost any company's business model.

I set up a meeting with my executive staff and gave the pitch to a very dubious looking audience. They asked me a ton of exasperating questions. Of course, they didn't exactly get it. I could see that even with my detailed explanations, but I was able to convince them to give it a shot.

For my COO, the "Aha" moment came when we had our annual "Halloween Event" at the office. I had created Twitter accounts, a blog site, and a Facebook page for our organization. As the events took place around the office, I took photographs and uploaded them to Facebook. I live blogged and then summarized the entire event in a blog post. Things that had been very difficult for the company to achieve and support in the past, I had completed in near real time.

Many large companies, like Intel, have Intranet pages and corporate sites where they can disseminate non-business specific information, marketing information, and HR related information to their employees and externally interested parties. But for small- and medium-sized businesses with limited resources, it's a much more difficult process. Social media allows companies like these to have a much more proactive, interactive presence with their employees, customers, and partners.

In the past, pictures from an event would languish on a flash card in the digital camera of someone too busy with real work to download and transfer the files to a photo-sharing service. Even if that step was completed, organizing the photos and putting them in context was difficult and time consuming. The resources to safely and securely make this information available on our own systems were a further distraction and expense. Generally, it just didn't get done - or it was long after the actual event had taken place.

More recently, we held a Partner's Luncheon. This annual event with our clients and partners allows us to share industry changes, our accomplishments, and the roadmap for the next year. Like many other companies, managers and executives take the podium and give PowerPoint presentations about what their departments are doing, will be doing, or have done. The slides often contain links to industry web sites and other information.

Because it's a luncheon, this information is generally not fully utilized. The partners aren't writing down the links, because they're eating lunch. This year, I sat in the back, live blogging to Twitter about who was at the podium and what they were talking about. We had guest speakers who have Twitter accounts, and I linked to their profiles.

People who were unable to attend the luncheon could still remotely follow the event. We took pictures and posted them to our Facebook page. We took video that will be compiled, edited, and published on YouTube. The entire PowerPoint presentation was converted to a blog, with live links to the external sites that were mentioned in the luncheon. Most of this was completed nearly in real time. The rest, except for publishing the video, was complete before the end of the business day.

IT managers and CIOs should be cautious of dismissing the utility of properly leveraged social media. There are certainly risks and pitfalls that I did not cover here - but like most things, this is an opportunity that if your business does not engage, your competition most likely will.

If you have any questions, comments, concerns, or your own experiences to share, please speak up in the discussion thread. We would love to hear what other people are doing with social media in their organizations, as well as reasons why other organizations are taking a "wait and see" approach.

By Donovan Colbert

Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...