Creating Your Own Social Network: Beyond Facebook

Editorial: Many businesses are using Facebook as a portal to communicate with their customers. Facebook is much more than just a simple platform – through the use of applications and widgets you can do so much more. From simple things like inviting people to sign up for events, to joining causes. There are tools you can use beyond Facebook, to create your own custom social network. Adam Boyden, president of Conduit speaks about some of them below. One that I like, not mentioned below is, Kickapps.

These tough economic times are forcing many to rethink the ways in which they market to customers. Organizations of all sizes are seeking new ways to creatively and inexpensively connect with consumers on a more personal level through the adoption of social networking technologies. And why wouldn?t they? Most social media tools are free or inexpensive and can be easily integrated with any existing marketing initiatives, adding to the effectiveness and reach of current campaigns. And, because these tools don?t require a high degree of technical prowess, nearly anyone can deploy.

Included below are several examples of some free social networking tools that any small business can adopt with ease, as well as examples of how some organizations are combining them with other technologies to cross-pollinate their marketing efforts.

Community Toolbars
A branded community toolbar can be built at no cost and is easily installed by your customers/prospects into an IE, Firefox or Safari browser. This flexible tool can host any element of your website and other marketing tools such as your blog, Twitter, Facebook, RSS feeds, etc. It is a simple and persistent method to stay in front of, and interact with, your customers wherever they go on the web. By using services like Conduit?s toolbar creation platform, you can extend your reach beyond your URL to syndicate content and applications.

Facebook Groups
By setting up a Facebook Group, organizations can further extend their brand presence in a naturally viral environment. Facebook makes it easy to share news and events with group members and offers a place for discussions. It also provides the natural credibility of reference marketing as your fans share your page/apps with their contacts.

Facebook and a community toolbar can be easily integrated to improve engagement. For example, the StepUp2Dance community toolbar includes a link to its Facebook group where users can access the inner members? area and chat room, get new information first, and create their own 30-second videos. The Facebook group also includes a link to download their own community toolbar.

Ning provides a free platform on which anyone can create their own niche social networking site focused on topics that they are most passionate about. A social network is a great way to gather like-minded people together to further promote your brand, products, initiatives, etc. This community of people is also most likely to become your evangelists and generate viral marketing for your company/organization virally.

Twitter is all the rage lately and now that Oprah announced her account (@Oprah), it has gone even more mainstream. For some organizations, Twitter is a great opportunity to have one-on-one conversations with potential customers or partners that might be interested in what they are offering. It?s also a means to publicize specials or promotions and drive people to a company website, blog, or another online presence.

One example of a small organization that has received lots of attention and tons of users by integrating all of these tools together is TwitterMoms. In August of 2008, TwitterMoms set up their Twitter account and closely followed that with a Ning social network and a community toolbar from Conduit. They did all of this at no cost and are seeing excellent results.

They have more than 15,000 followers on Twitter and their Ning community currently gets 300,000 to 400,000 page views a month and generates significant revenue through advertising. These social media strategies in concert have generated an enthusiastic community of fans that talk about it constantly.

These are just a few of the many social networking tools available to anyone and everyone. Smart small businesses aren?t doing away with their marketing initiatives, they are just thinking differently about them. Rather than waiting for customers to come to them, using social networking tools provides a means to go where your customers are and actively engage with them.

Whether it be the creation of your own social networking site using Ning, setting up a Facebook Group, creating a branded community toolbar, using Twitter or a combination of all, you can make a big impact without spending a dime.
Ramon Ray is editor and tech evangelist for