How online communities can help build your finance SME

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Freedom is one of the great reasons to run your own company.

Within reason, small business owners can make their own rules, set their own goals, and create their own opportunities. But going it alone can also bring uncertainty, so it’s important for finance SMEs to seek support and guidance from other firms in the sector.

The traditional forum for businesses to discuss new developments and best practice was the industry conference or convention. These grand gatherings still serve a purpose, but in the digital age you don’t have to wait for an annual assembly to start sharing experiences and tools for success. Today, groups on social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn act as a kind of ‘digital watercooler’ for their members, giving finance SMEs the chance to connect with both peers and potential customers, and to build their businesses along the way.

“Online groups present opportunities to ask questions and start discussions,” explains Luan Wise, a freelance marketing consultant who specialises in building social media strategies. “They provide an opportunity to hear what other people have to say, what people are concerned about and what they’re being positive about.”

Communicating with customers

Before your business joins any digital dialogues, you should identify which communities fit your needs. If you’re hoping to connect with potential clients, for instance, look for groups that could benefit from your professional experience and expertise. For accountants, this might be a Facebook group for small business owners in the local area, where, if questions about tax crop up towards the end of the financial year, you’ll be on hand to offer advice.

“You need to be where your prospects and your customers hang out,” Wise explains. “These might be local community groups, or groups devoted to specific sectors and subject areas. In these forums, finance SMEs can listen to conversations and keep an eye out when people are asking for recommendations and referrals.”

Something to avoid, though, is ‘spamming’ groups with promotional posts. Social media marketing professionals advocate the 80/20 rule, which says that just 20 per cent of a brand’s social media content should be promotional. The remaining 80 per cent of posts should be about sparking audience engagement. This principle applies not only to content, but also to your conduct in online groups: community membership is about building credibility and adding value to discussions, not simply advertising your services.

Building your knowledge

Connecting with other finance SMEs online will also help you broaden your business horizons. Facebook and LinkedIn are a good starting point to search for communities that cater to finance professionals, providing a space for business owners to discuss industry developments and ask questions of their peers.

But once you’ve found one group, don’t stop there. Instead, make an effort to join groups on other platforms, as the content of conversation is likely to vary. Facebook is intended to be a social platform, while LinkedIn is more geared towards professional networking.

“LinkedIn groups tend to have a better quality and depth of discussion, while. Facebook is very relaxed in its style and conversation. In my experience the latter facilitates chit-chat and low-level recommendations,” Wise advises.

Observing etiquette

Remember too that your interactions in online groups are public, and that your behaviour will reflect on your business. Many groups will have an established code of conduct for members, containing guidelines for accepted posts. When you join a group, be sure to respect the rules. Before you can start adding your input to discussions, make sure you’re putting your best foot forward.

“Incomplete profiles show that you’re not ready to do business online,” Wise warns. “If you do spark up a good conversation in a group and someone goes to look at your profile, it needs to have all the necessary details. A complete profile is credible, and lets you attain a level of trust when you’re having a business conversation.”

Being an active and productive voice in an online community is a great way to gain a reputation as an expert in your field. And if you’re new to the worlds of finance or social media, you can begin to build knowledge and confidence by simply observing conversations in digital forums.

With online groups, you don’t need to be connected to a wide network of urban professionals to stay up to date with industry news, and you don’t need a huge marketing budget to reach out to potential customers. There are only two things you need to build your brand among online communities: a social media presence and something to say.

Lauren Razavi is an award-winning writer and content strategist, and managing director of communications consultancy Flibl. She has worked on projects for leading global brands such as NatWest, Google and Facebook, and her writing focuses on technology, finance, entrepreneurship and innovation. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRazavi.

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