Everyone's feeling the pressure from this recession and budgets are being cut/tightened. Now, more than ever, it's important for teams, athletes and agencies to get what they can for free. While there are many other reasons for getting involved in social media, engaging fans and customers online via social media is a great way to build relationships and save money; the cost of doing business with someone you have a relationship with is a lot less than the cost of reaching new fans/customers/clients.
Ideally, teams, athletes and agencies should be taking a serious look at social media and discovering how they can leverage it (internally and/or externally) to achieve their goals, such as building new conversation streams, authority, trust and recognition, extending sponsor and ticket promotions, or simply improving the way they communicate and tell their stories. And that means dedicating some money/time/resources to this, and possibly hiring a community manager, if you're a team.
But if you can't afford to spend any money right now, here are some quick tips to engage people through free social media tools. These aren't full-blown recommendations or necessarily the best ways to go about getting involved in social media, but if you're looking for FREE you can't beat this stuff. Remember, PARTICIPATE, don't just promote.
1) Create online identities and protect your brand
Create identities on websites where your audience is and take control of your online brand. Get on Twitter, create Facebook and LinkedIn pages for your company, and if you're a team or athlete, get a MySpace page, too. Whether you're an athlete, team or agency, you need to make sure you have control of your name online so people know they're getting accurate information from an official source. I've heard that the main reason Shaq got on Twitter at first was to take control of his name after he realized that someone was tweeting from a fake Shaq account. These online identities are places for you to tell your story and connect with people who share your interests. Plus, you can reach people through these tools that might not usually visit your website.
2) Start a blog
Doing a blog the best way requires planning and effort. But if we're talking about free tools to save money then you can still participate. Wordpress is my choice of platform, and you can get a hosted blog on Wordpress.com or free software so you can host it yourself. Obviously, you need to decide what to share/not share based on your organization's comfort level, but I bet you can still find something interesting to write about. After all, you'll do whatever it takes to survive in this economy, right?
3) Reach out to sports bloggers
Do you know how many sports bloggers would kill to receive even more information about their favorite athlete or team? A LOT of them. Let them know you've started a blog and tell them you'd appreciate any help they can offer in getting the word out. Better yet, let them use your official blog as an outlet for their opinions and involve them in the content creation process. Save money and time by empowering others and letting them write about you. If you're an agency, reach out to a university's sports marketing program and see if anyone wants a blogger internship. I bet they do.
4) Put your videos on YouTube and your pictures on Flickr
I'm sure you have highlight clips, promotional videos and commercials that are just sitting around collecting dust. Put them on YouTube! Put your pictures on Flickr! Every picture, video and other piece of content is an opportunity for your brand to make an impression on someone online.
5) Promote these online identities and link to them
Link to your main website on each of your profiles and link to your profiles somewhere on your website, so people know you're out there and can find you. Sign up for Friendfeed and pull all your pictures, blog posts, videos into your profile there. You can also get tools that make it easy to update these profiles. Twitterfeed broadcasts your recent blog posts to your audience on Twitter. The Facebook Twitter App pulls your Twitter updates into your status message there for your entire network to see and comment on. This is very powerful stuff.
6) Join groups on Facebook and LinkedIn
Joining groups is a great way to find people who might be interested in your product/service/team/athletes. It's free, too. Another way to find people to connect with is..
7) Use Twitter search
Do a search for your name and keywords to see what people are saying about you and connect with them! To search for multiple keywords at the same time, use a service like TweetGrid. Last night, I did a search for "Lakers tickets," and found that someone needs tickets for the game. Wouldn't that be a great opportunity to delight and surprise someone and turn them into a stronger fan/customer?
8) Involve your employees
Encourage your employees to create profiles on these sites and use these social media tools. A variety of perspectives can be interesting. Set guidelines for how to use these tools, but be flexible. You don't want them to have to come to you for approval every time they want to update their Twitter accounts. Just tell them not to be stupid. Remember, your biggest concern (for the purposes of this article) is generating free coverage/influence/relationships.
9) Participate, comment and respond
Spend a few minutes each day interacting with your fans and influencers via these tools and by leaving comments on their blogs. This shows that you care and are serious about building a relationship with them, instead of just out there to promote yourself. If someone writes something about you, thank them for it. Think of social media as customer service on steroids. Extraordinary customer service will bring results. Just look at what Zappos has done.
Like I said earlier, this isn't meant to be a comprehensive guide or the only or exact things you should be doing. Putting that kind of plan together takes a lot more than a few minutes of writing. But if you're strapped for cash, these are some things you an pretty easily implement that can have an impact on your business. If you put in the effort/time, this can definitely start bringing in results.
As with anything, you should desire how to measure this, whether that is attention (traffic/page views), authority (technorati rank, trackbacks/links to your content), participation metrics like comments or influence (the number of followers and subscribers you have). *These things come from Peter Kim's framework for measuring social media.
How have you used free social media tools to connect with your fans and customers?