Use Online Social Networks to Make Yourself a Star

by Paul Gillin

No one asked Reba Haas to become an expert on the Seattle area. No newspaper editor gave her a column and no TV station told her story. She doesn't have a radio show or even a book. Reba Haas created her own path to celebrity using a handful of carefully selected web sites and social networks. And after only five years in the business, she's become the number two Seattle realtor in the Re/Max network.

Reba Haas works hard at maintaining her visibility. Her name and photo are all over Seattle web sites. Her Team Reba blog guides homeowners and prospective purchasers through the intricacies of real estate. Its content is helpful, not promotional. She maintains a network of 1,500 contacts on LinkedIn, the popular business network. She's a frequent contributor to Rain City Guide and Zillow, which focus on the real estate market. Her agency also has profiles on MySpace and Facebook. Haas estimates she's closed over $3 million in business as a result of her online promotion, with another $1 million in the pipeline.

Welcome to the new world of online media, a world in which anyone can be a recognized authority. By tapping into the burgeoning crop of specialized web sites and social networks, small-business people are learning that they can make new contacts more quickly, manage resources more efficiently and market themselves to a community of interested customers at little or no cost. All it takes is time, enthusiasm and dedication.

You might start with a blog, the easiest online publication to set up and maintain. Spending 15 minutes each day writing about your area of expertise can quickly grow traffic and improve search engine performance. A blog is only the beginning. Once you create content, whether it be words, pictures, audio and/or video, you can distribute it through a network of other outlets. Many web site operators are hungry for new content. They'll willingly accept contributions from experts and link back to your web site, which drives more traffic and improves your search engine ranking. Search is the great equalizer. Google makes no distinction between your blog and The New York Times. If you know the tricks, you can beat media sites at the search game.

Just ask Jody DeVere. She runs AskPatty, a two-year-old training, certification and publishing venture that aims to educate auto dealers about the benefits of selling to women. AskPatty has amassed a collection of 2,000 articles about all things automotive. Many are contributed by visitors to the site. Using a variety of syndication and reprint deals, AskPatty distributes its content -- and its brand -- across scores of web sites, its traffic has grown steadily in double-digit percentages every month.

But the benefit isn't just traffic. DeVere also fields two or three press inquiries per week from reporters seeking commentary on her unique area of expertise. By keeping the site's content focused on topics relating to women automotive enthusiasts, the site has become a magnet for search engine queries about that topic. AskPatty is actively training more than 200 auto dealers and has a backlog of 1,500 inquiries from other prospects.

Social networks have added a productive new dynamic to online networking. Active users of sites like LinkedIn and Facebook find that they can maintain vastly larger contact networks than they could before. Now, instead of rifling through Rolodex cards while talking on the phone with their business contact, they point people to their LinkedIn or Facebook profiles and offer to arrange introductions. Or they post inquiries to their contact networks to learn about new business opportunities through word-of-mouth influence.

Anyone with an Internet connection can tap into these channels. No longer do experts need to plead with newspaper editors or pitch TV reporters to gain visibility. They can now take their case directly to their prospects and customers. Through search engine optimization and word-of-mouth marketing, they can achieve remarkable results. All it takes is a little know-how and a lot of commitment.

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