When Larry Rudolf became vice-president of marketing at Markham, Ont.-based Strategic Connections Inc. (SCI) last year, he took on a challenge.
A 2006 deal with General Motors Corp. had made SCI North America, with 85 employees, the biggest provider of software for tracking and managing sales leads to the auto industry. But GM private-labels SCI's Torque system, so even auto dealers who use it may not have heard of the company.
Mr. Rudolf's goal was to raise the company's profile, especially outside North America.
"What I needed to do was to use every single tool," Mr. Rudolf says. "Today, social media marketing is one of the fundamental tools, or it's becoming a fundamental tool."
First Mr. Rudolf established a blog at www.idriveleads.com . Then he opened an account on Twitter.com, a social networking site that has gained popularity. He also set up a page on Facebook.com, the leading consumer social-networking service.
Twitter, the latest example of a social networking site turned business tool, is a "microblogging" site where members post 140-character "tweets," or updates on their activities, comments and links to websites. Twitter gets about 10 million unique visitors a month, up from barely a million at the beginning of 2008.
SCI uses it for marketing, with tweets like: "Dealership was with us 2 years. Left late summer for a competitor. Came back (yesterday) and asked for a 3-year contract. Results matter." Other tweets are teasers for company blog posts, which doesn't necessarily sell SCI's products directly, Mr. Rudolf says, but help the company present itself as a thought leader in its field and drives traffic to its website.
This may sound dangerously close to spam, but Twitter makes it easy for people to opt in or out of following your tweets, says Tim Hickernell, lead analyst for Info-Tech Research Group, based in London, Ont.
That puts the onus on the business, which must make people want to follow its tweets. So there must be valuable information and not just self-promotion.
"Make sure you give them something of value. Don't parrot [by repeating what others have written]and don't fill it up with noise," Mr. Hickernell advises.
At the same time, he says, Twitterers must know their audience. Some people want information, some want interactivity and expect you to reply to their tweets. Gauging this can be difficult, Mr. Hickernell says, and success can only be judged by feedback or whether people stop following you.
Using Twitter as a business tool means listening, too. Businesses can monitor public opinion about their products or services and keep up with what's happening in their markets.
Sarah Thompson who recently established the Toronto public relations agency CoeurIdeas, says Twitter's search feature, which lets her hunt for tweets containing a word or phrase, is a great way to monitor public opinion about a product or announcement.
Gifford Watkins, founder and chief executive of Atlantic Webfitters in Mount Uniacke, N.S., uses Twitter to keep up with news and rumours about DotNetNuke, the open-source software his company uses in building Web portals.
Businesses should also look at Facebook and its business counterpart, LinkedIn, Mr. Hickernell adds.
LinkedIn bills itself as a professional networking site, where users create profiles and forge links with others. Ms. Thompson likes it for locating "all those people that I've lost the business cards of along the way."
The LinkedIn Answers service lets subscribers post questions and receive answers from other subscribers - "almost like opening a problem ticket that the public can give good answers - or bad answers - on," Mr. Watkins says.
Facebook is still seen largely as a consumer site, but Mr. Hickernell says "many people are indeed using Facebook now - the 30- and 40-somethings - for professional networking."
Mr. Watkins uses Facebook to talk about his concept of Web portals - sites that non-technical people can update, compared to conventional Web pages. "All I do is basically pontificate about the job I love," he says, but it helps educate customers.
Mr. Hickernell advises care in using social networking, though. Employees must be careful what they post, and mixing business and after-hours identities online is "an accident waiting to happen," he warns.