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How startups can use social media

Idealog is following some of the members of the eSprint programme at Massey University's ecentre as they develop and validate their business concepts. Today, Mark Tomlinson reflects on his first week.

It's been an interesting few days for the start of the eSprint programme - lots of interesting people talking about aspects of business I've never considered.

One thing that has stuck out for me is where the focus should be at the beginning, and surprisingly enough that isn't asking "How is this thing going to make money?", instead there needs to be more focus on "Why are you in business in the first place?"

I've had a look around websites (TED.com has some great speakers) and I found someone that puts it really nicely. Check it out...

The basis of his speech is "People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it". He uses Apple as an example and I can relate to that because I'm a fan myself. There's plenty of smartphones out there that look like iPhones and even some that outperform them - but if I was going to buy a new phone I'd buy an iPhone. In fact, if Apple made toasters I'd probably buy an iToaster too - because I know that it'd "just work".

So the moral of the story is that to be an Apple, and have those people that line up for your new iGadget it's best to establish an identity – something that people can relate to – and then deliver them great products.

The introduction to social media was an eye-opener to something that has seemed superficial to me and something that I thought I'd think about once I've got a product going and I've got some time on my hands.

First lesson = WHAT DO YOU WANT TO GET OUT OF SOCIAL MEDIA?

The amount of social media sites out there seems a bit overwhelming to me ... should I be on Facebook? Twitter? Google+? Have a blog? Have those like buttons on my site? I imagine that if you just do an all-out attack on all the outlets that are available without having some sort of purpose in mind you'll end up creating a scattered message and not really receiving the benefits that are available to you.

Like I said, I thought social media was something I could do once I have a finished product to sell to the end user - but it seems that I could use it just effectively starting straight away to gain that customer base, and to tap into the opinions and insights that are out there. I was planning to get this sort of feedback in face-to-face interaction with lead users but apparently there's more benefits by doing this virtually and accessing the global community that would one day be customers. 

As it stands, my business model relies not only on lead users, but also the credibility of the company. If I'm going to be pitching to partner with very established and credible companies then I better project an image of capability. I should be able to do this by using social media to create a base of lead users that have given opinions that have shaped the product, and are enthusiastic about the release of my product.

What would be cool would be to develop this relationship to a point where I can approach one of those 'big players' and say "This is the product we are offering, there are X people that have been contributing and following the development of it and are ready to buy it". Physical one-on-one interviews aren't going to create that sort of hype for the product.

So how will this happen? I don't know yet, but I'm thinking that using Twitter/Facebook to find lead users, as well as establishing relationships with people that run personal blogs about subjects related to my product is a place to start. The personal bloggers are of particular interest to me because the fact that they are running a blog says that they are not afraid of sharing their position and are obviously passionate about their area of interest. They should be an honest source of information, and as an added bonus, they might be able to spread the word for me once the product is released.

Second lesson = INTERACT - DONT BROADCAST

I hadn't really considered the power of social media because my main exposure is Facebook, which in my experience is full of people telling what they're doing or how they're feeling - which has never really been something that's made me want to come back for more or engage. But once the distinction between interacting  and broadcasting was made, a few good examples come to mind and I realised that how much more powerful they are.

One of my favourite bands has a weekly newsletter (they probably have a website but the newsletter keeps me happy). In the newsletter about 20 percent of the time they spend talking about themselves - what awards they're nominated for, interviews, tour dates etc. The rest of the newsletter is about stuff that’s more relevant and engaging. Things like what books they're reading, what CDs they’re listening to, what restaurants they eat at when they're on tour, pictures fans have sent them etc. I generally click on at least one of these links each newsletter. which is much more interaction than Facebook gets from me.

In their most recent album they even gathered thousands of fans through social media and got them to sing on the album – that definitely gives the impression that the input of their 'customers' really matters to them.

The newsletter has a section where it shows fans that have tattoos of the band's logo and their lyrics. That kind of loyalty would be pretty special to have with a product and definitely something to aspire to.

So the lesson is that social media is more powerful than I'd given it credit for - I just need to figure out a clear strategy.

Mark Tomlinson is participating in the ecentreSprint programme, a 12-week course held by Massey University's business incubator that helps entrepreneurs develop their business idea and model.