Social media vital — and fun

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Some plastics manufacturers are blogging, posting and building their professional online communities, and enjoying the spoils of being early adopters. Yet, many of their peers are still slow to embrace social media, even though their competitors are doing so.
Those that believe in it, engage in it and take advantage of it assess the value of social media against a different set of criteria than those that don't. The converted view it as an ongoing networking opportunity. For them, it isn't a new way to build relationships and reputations but an old and easier way to build them — thanks to the Internet.
Think back to the last trade show you attended. You were communicating just by being there. Your presence alone said your company is alive and well and that you were ready to do business with new customers. As you attended breakout sessions or panel discussions you began to form relationships with other participants. You were building your community.
Did you make any immediate sales? No. And yet the time out of the office, not to mention travel costs, were a well-spent investment in your company and future growth.
This is exactly how social media works, except that you don't have to take two days out of the office and pony up for a hotel room, airfare and entry fees. And because it's online, you have access to an unlimited number of potential community members — not just those that attend the same events.
As with offline professional communities, online communities should comprise the same mix of industry professionals you'd find at the show: vendors, customers, prospects, subcontractors, parts and materials provi¬d-

ders,¬ R&D people — anyone and everyone that somehow touches your realm of the industry.
But how and where do you find an online community? Actually, your online community finds you. Via LinkedIn, Twitter, blogging. You get it started by seeding the clouds. Join related LinkedIn communities and set up one for your company to cross pollinate members. Use tools like followerwonk to target potential participants. Go through your emails, even that old Rolodex, make a list and then go to LinkedIn and look them up. Send them an invite and then get ready to join the conversation. Once you get connected, you'll be amazed how quickly it takes off.
The idea is to put yourself in the role of editor; not marketer. In doing so, you'll become the facilitator of engagement among your community members as well as its leading voice. Keep it up and you'll be a "thought" leader before you know it.
Marketing's most valuable currency is a shared passion and by engaging your professional brethren through social media you can network and make important connections and contacts all year long — no airfare or hotel room necessary. Instead of being a keynote speaker for 20 minutes every six months or so, you can be a keynote speaker on an ongoing basis.
And just as with a trade event, you will eventually get an email or a call or a referral that does lead to business. So get on LinkedIn, start a blog or begin following and tweeting on Twitter. Not only will it pay off, here's another insider's secret. Once you get into it, it's really fun.

Joseph Nieckarz is product manager for ThomasNet of New York.