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This is the second in a series of articles we will be publishing relaying thoughts and ideas from the Internet Retailer Conference in Chicago, which occurred June 5th through June 7th. Peter Kosciewicz, Director of E-Commerce for the Eastwood Company, and Chris Saito, Senior Director, Shopping Products for Yahoo! Shopping, delivered a presentation entitled "Social Networking: The Peer Pursuasion Marketing Tool."

According to Kosciewicz, the Web today has grown into an "architecture of participation" that facilitates social networking through devices such as blogs, wikis, RSS, podcasts, and more. Forrester Research has published studies that show that traditional marketing is continuing to lose credibility. For example, in 2002, 78% of respondents in a survey said that ads are a good way to learn about a new product. In 2004, that number had dropped to 46%. In 2002, 14% of respondents agrees that companies generally tell the trust. As pathetic as 14% is, in 2004, it had declined even further - down to 7%. Social networking as a means of marketing overcomes this lack of consumer trust because it relies on the word of the consumer rather than the word of the producer. Research from Datamonitor reported that 85% of repondents in a survey indicated that word-of-mouth from friends, family, or colleagues is more trustworthy than corporate-generated content.

So how do you take advantage of social networking to sell more product? Simple - you open yourself up. You plant the seeds of a community to grow up around your site by using devices such as blogs, customer reviews, and forums to give a voice to your customers or prospective customers. The caveat is that you must be high quality. You must have high quality service and a high quality product. If not, avoid this marketing method.

Kosciewicz outlined four important rules for using social networking on your web site:

1. Guide but don't control.
2. Never censor.
3. Don't be afraid of the negative.
4. Don't be paranoid.

If you open up a forum on your site but then restrict what people are allowed to say, such as removing posts that are negative toward your company or that mention your competitors, then you will do more damage than good to your reputation. Use negativity as a way to improve your business. If people are negative, look at that as feedback and act on it. Make changes, and then let your community know about it. Don't worry about your community talking about your competition. Your attitude has to be that you are the best, so why worry about it?

As a community develops around your web site, certain members will establish themselves as more influential than others. They will be more outspoken, and will be the ones who often respond to others. Cultivate these members, because they can be powerful allies. Once you have identified the more influential members of your community, contact them regularly, give them free product, become their friend. Feed your influencers information, and they will distribute it for you. But do not make it appear that you are only interested in them because they can help you sell stuff. You need to be genuine.

Measuring the impact of social networking is difficult. Unlike other forms of marketing, there is no direct connect between social networking activity and sells. What you will want to do is track traffic to pages such as customer reviews, referral links, etc.

Social networking can be a powerful marketing tool, if you have a high quality product and are not afraid of an open dialogue with your customers.

If you would like help implementing a social networking strategy for your web site, call Work Media at 1-888-299-4837 or email info@workmedia.net.

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