In these economically conscious times (aren’t they always?!?!?), I keep hearing; How do I monetize my time on a social network? Well aside from advertising (which is the one obvious answer) there are several ways to ways to think about spending time and effort on social networks. To keep it simple and akin to something that the old guard is familiar with; think of it as a branding exercise.

You can break out the branding exercise in several ways:

  1. Brand awareness: At the most basic level, you’re building brand awareness by participating in that social network.
  2. Customer service: You can utilize things like the wall or a blog to help answer questions from your user base. (Yes. They can say anything. Oooooh scary!) This wall also becomes like user forums where the answers to others questions are there for all to see. If you’re not prepared to be transparent online, then be prepared to do less business online and suffer less customer loyalty. Transparency is the new user expectation.
  3. Focus groups: You should collect feedback on a new product/service. Other users can comment on others feedback, therefore giving that user a sense of ownership of that product/service. (Also, be prepared to say “no” (channeling Jason Fried here) and back it up with a real reason.) This is already being done.
  4. Brand persona: This is similar to a spokesperson except that the person handling the social networking account really does use the product/service and they are a real person and not a celebrity. (They may attain niche celebrity over time and this would be a great thing.)  Social networks are about people; not businesses. No one cares what a business has to say, but may care what an employee or a fan has to say about that business/industry. If you can’t find the right subject matter expert (SME), then find someone to “report” on that subject matter; finding the right SMEs. Over time they will become the SME or at the very least be seen as the provider of the SMEs. Also, be prepared for your representative to participate in the conversations that the online community is having. They can’t (and shouldn’t) interject your product or service into every conversation. No one will listen.

All of these things will build brand depth. This is a different medium with its own rules. Making the decision to participate in a social network can be thought of in the same way that businesses thought of email support or instant chat. (I remember, years ago, a tema member saying: “Oh man. If we do email, they can copy and paste our responses into wherever they want to. That’s scary!” Point is, this fear has been around for a long time and if you participate in the community (with a real voice) then you can build your brand.

It’s also important to remember that we’re still in the very early phases of the social networking paradigm and it is easiest to think of this as a branding exercise; with the option to monetize through advertising. The next phase will be the rise of the niche social network and then things are going to get really intense as people will be linked by common passions as opposed to; “I went to school with that guy” or “I used to work with them”.

Until then; get on the boat.