Long gone are the days of 2006, when companies glanced longingly at social media and wondered what potential it held.

Now, if companies aren't going through the natural growing pains that come from joining the blogosphere and social sites, they are at a severe competitive disadvantage.

Many companies have by now launched initial social media initiatives and are looking to move their efforts to the next step.

This is where social media experts such as Josh Hallett come in.

Hallett has first-hand experience in using the power of social media. He's leveraged his blog and grueling schedule as a conference speaker to establish himself not only as one of the true thought leaders in the business blogosphere but also as an in-demand social-media consultant.

If your company is dipping its toes in the social media waters and needs to know what comes next, Hallett can help demystify this form of "new marketing."

Q: Many times it seems that a company will start blogging, and later abandon the blog. What do you think is the biggest hurdle that companies need to clear if they want to grow their blog into a successful marketing and communication tool?

A: First off, it's a long-term commitment—and they need to set aside much of the marketing and PR spin that sometimes creeps into some corporate blogs. There is sometimes the thought that since it's their blog, they have "control." Well they do to some degree, but ultimately the organization needs to be willing to talk about things they might not want to talk about.

From a resource standpoint blogs can require a bunch of time. However, blogging does become easier with time. What I mean by that is the writing/finding/linking becomes easier once you have some experience.

The other thing to think about is offline interaction. Get the corporate bloggers out to conferences and other events to interact with customers. Yes, blogs are great for building online relationships, but there is no substitute for face-to-face interactions. We talk about how blogs can help humanize a corporation... actually meeting the human behind the blog is the ultimate extension of this.

Q: What is a blogger-outreach program, and when do you think a company should launch such an initiative?

A: In basic terms it's building relationships with bloggers just as you would with journalists or other influencers. When should they launch one? If you rely upon outside sources for marketing/pr/news whatever... and I think this applies to just about every corporation, then you should start now. You don't need to wait till you have a blog. Many corporations will never have blogs, but that doesn't mean they can't interact with bloggers. However, it's easier to interact with bloggers if you blog yourself. As in, "Do you speak blog?"

The question a corporation needs to ask, though, is: Are they willing to treat a blogger with the same respect as a trade journalist?

Q: We keep hearing about the growth of Facebook. For most companies, does it make more sense to use its blog, or social sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as tools to stay in touch with its customers?

A: If we look at many of the "tools" of social media and social networks, the foundation is conversation and relationships. The majority of users are on the services to interact with friends. But can a corporation be a friend? Does a corporation really have anything of value to offer a customer in terms of conversation or relationships?

This is where the human element comes in (has DOW trademarked that yet?). I'm not going to "friend" a company, but I will friend somebody who works for the company. However, is that person able to speak on behalf of the company?

When you look at companies that are doing things right, they have full-time evangelists. They're people but they're representing a company. Their job is to help customers work with the company and not necessarily to pitch or sell.

Providing that kind of service ends up generating sales, though, since it builds positive word-of-mouth among peers.

Q: If I'm a B2B marketer, what areas of social media should I be examining? Where is the growth going to come from in the next 1-2 years?

A: This really depends on the industry you work in and knowing where your audience is. Are they using social networks, and are they reading blogs? It's difficult to really predict exactly where the growth will come. Could anybody predict the rapid adoption of Facebook a year ago?

Q: When it comes to social media, what are the keys to using these tools to develop relationships online with your customers?

A: Listening, listening, listening, and then responding/answering. Using a blog to "talk, talk, talk" and not actually interact with customers is a common pitfall. Sure, they might offer comments on the blog, but are they doing anything with them, other than paying them lip-service?

I always refer back to offline relationships: What builds a relationship with a friend or a colleague? Use that as a guide for building your online relationships.

The common response, though, is, "We have 500 customers, I can't become friends with them all." You might not want to do it now, but at some point you might want your customers' relationship with you to be based upon more than cost, supply, or some other economic factor.

* * *

Hear Josh Hallett live at the MarketingProfs B2B Forum, "Driving Sales: What Works, What's New, What Sticks," where he'll moderate a panel discussion on how companies can take their blogging strategies to the next level. Sign up here.

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image of Mack Collier

Mack Collier is a social-media strategist based in Alabama. He helps companies build programs and initiatives that let them better connect with their customers and advocates. His podcast, The Fan-Damn-Tastic Marketing Show, discusses ways that brands can turn customers into fans. His first book, Think Like a Rock Star: How to Create Social Media and Marketing Strategies That Turn Customers Into Fans, was published in April 2013 by McGraw-Hill.

Twitter: @MackCollier

LinkedIn: Mack Collier