BACK when I was a top-performing financial services agent, some of the most effective ways of reaching prospective customers included cold-calling and print advertising.

For small business owners and sales professionals today, communication with prospective customers is becoming increasingly difficult, as customers become increasingly unreachable.

Go online

As people spend more time online, social media is becoming a brand’s best advertising medium. Only 18 per cent of traditional TV campaigns generate a positive return-on-investment (ROI), while 25 per cent of social network users have gone directly to an online retailer after learning about a new product or brand.

The social media tidal wave is here. Learning and applying these social media fundamentals will help you get started on launching social media campaigns to reach the unreachable customer.

Facebook

Facebook is a social networking site that was launched in September 2006 for everyone of ages 13 and older with an e-mail address. With more than 400 million active users worldwide, it allows users to add friends, send them messages and update their personal and business profiles. I use it to share sales-related information and upcoming events with fans.

Small business owners and sales professionals can grow their businesses by creating a Facebook page. Schedule a few minutes every day to post a short update with information on trends or tips that your audience will find valuable. This will help them get to know you and your business better. Avoid the temptation of aggressively selling your products and services.

I encourage small office and home office (Soho) entrepreneurs to invite their target customers to become fans on their Facebook pages where they can discuss issues within their industry, get the inside scoop on upcoming related events and check out photos of past events. This helps position Soho entrepreneurs as valuable and trusted resources.

Twitter

Twitter is a social networking and micro-blogging service that enables users to send and read messages (up to 140 characters) known as tweets. Since its creation in 2006, the number of users has grown to more than 100 million worldwide.

One of the founders, Evan Williams, describes Twitter not as a social network but as an information network. He says: “It tells people what they care about as it is happening in the world.” My first tweet was a sales tip on detecting your niche and creating qualifying questions.

Twitter has been encouraging its use as a business tool through “Twitter 101”, a web-based tutorial aimed at business users. Dell said that $9 million of its 2009 sales came directly through Facebook and Twitter combined. Sohos and small-and-medium enterprises (SMEs) can also benefit from using Twitter, since they can compete on equal terms with multinational corporations (MNCs) within the Twitter platform.

During the in-house sales training for SMEs and MNCs, I recommend that that sales professionals create a Twitter account and tweet about time-sensitive offers or events that would interest their followers.

An analysis of 2,000 tweets over a two-week period in August 2009 separated them into the following six categories: pointless babble (41 per cent), conversational (38 per cent), pass-along value (9 per cent), self-promotion (6 per cent), spam (4 per cent) and news (4 per cent).

I “unfollow” people whose tweets don’t add value or are exactly the same as their Facebook updates. Be sure to give people a special reason to follow you on Twitter.

LinkedIn

This is a business-oriented social networking site launched in May 2003 and is mainly used for professional networking. It has more than 65 million registered users in more than 200 countries worldwide.

The site allows users to maintain a list of people they know and trust in business. The people in the list are called connections. A contact network is then built up consisting of direct, second-degree and third-degree connections.

This can be useful in gaining an introduction to someone a person wishes to know through a mutual, trusted contact. The LinkedIn Groups feature also allows users to establish new business relationships by joining alumni, industry, or professional and other relevant groups.

Soho entrepreneurs can invite their customers and vendors to become connections on LinkedIn. It’s also useful for them to schedule some time during the week to reach out to their existing connections, learn about their challenges and see how they can offer assistance.

Essential tool

Social media alone cannot help you increase sales, but it is an essential part of your marketing communications strategy. Developing quality relationships and building trust will make it easier for your audience to connect with you offline at an event or your store.

Social media is a new tool that works best when applying the time-tested fundamentals of personal selling. People will always do business with people they know, like and trust.