Struggling with the whole social media thing? Don't know a tweet from a twit? Can't decide if your company should have a Facebook page? Trying to understand the value of LinkedIn? I know a guy who's figured it all out. His name is Bill. "I'm a social media god," he told me recently.

Interestingly, though, Bill's never been to any of these Web sites.

Bill owns a landscaping company near Dayton, Ohio. His company's Facebook page has more than a thousand fans. His Linkedln account has hundreds of connections. Another 1,500 people follow him on Twitter. But Bill doesn't do any of these things. And he's not spending much money (or, more important, much time).

Bill's secret? It's a 23-year-old girl in the San Francisco Bay area named Abby. Abby is actually Bill - for two to three hours a day.

Bill found Abby on Craigslist. He placed an ad for a part-time marketing assistant. It cost him $25. He wrote that he needed somebody who was "familiar with social media sites like Facebook and could help him better use these sites to promote his business." And he couldn't pay more than $20 per hour. Bill got 350 resumes within a week.

Yes, that's how bad the economy is. Or how good the job was. Because Bill wasn't asking this potential person to do anything more than they were already doing. Just connecting on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn. The main social media sites. Not to leave comments on a stupid video or send updates from the latest happy hour in town, but to promote Bill's business.

Abby lives with her boyfriend in Berkeley. She spends all day on her iPad. She's a registered Democrat. That last part was almost a show-stopper for Bill. But he liked Abby when he spoke to her on the phone. So he hired her. Bill took a chance with Abby. She's young. College-educated. She likes marketing. She uses social media all the time. And she was cheap labor. Bill's a penny-pincher. Perfect.

So for two or three hours a day, Abby becomes Bill. She grows a beard. She fondly remembers Reagan. She's a father of four. A graduate of Ohio State. A business owner. Abby didn't know much about landscaping, but she could learn that. Bill doesn't know much about social media. And he'll never learn. But that's OK, because the minute Bill chose Abby as his social media marketing person, she knew exactly what to do.

The first thing she did was start a Facebook fan page for Bill's business. She took a bunch of material already on his Web site. She had him snap some photos and e-mail them to her. She opened up the page for comments and dialogue. She formatted the page with colors and a design to match Bill's site. She also created a YouTube channel and a blog for Bill's company.

Next, she created a Twitter account and formatted it like the Facebook page. She searched Twitter, finding other people related to the business - gardeners, planters, hobbyists - anyone remotely interested in gardens and lawns. Bill helped her out by providing a list of customers and suppliers and other contacts he's known over the years. And she followed them. And they, in turn, started following her. I mean Bill.

Abby wasn't finished. She then created a LinkedIn account for Bill and his business. She made sure it professionally described all that Bill's company does. She invited others in the business to connect with her. Many were from the list Bill provided to her, and all of these sites updated each other. Abby had this up and running in no time. All while Bill was out landscaping with his guys.

And then the real fun began. Because every day Abby would tweet and blog about landscaping as if it was Bill doing it. She followed the industry. She posted a link to an interesting article. She posted a link to a fun gardening video. She commented on someone else's post. She replied to a customer's question. She would call and e-mail Bill (or one of his managers) a few times a week for ideas or help if she didn't know the answers. Nothing huge: Tidbits on gardening. Advice on mowing a lawn. A new piece of equipment of interest. Company news like someone having a baby, a new employee arriving or an update on someone's parole.

Abby knew that in the social media world, people are drawn to information. New information. Every day. As long as it's of value, they'll check it out. And before he knew it, Bill was getting LinkedIn invitations and Facebook fans and more and more Twitter followers. Except it wasn't Bill. It was Abby.

Some people would think that hiring someone to impersonate you is misleading. Those are the same people who think that celebrities - and not their PR firms - are really the ones tweeting about their new album or recent appearance at a bookstore. There are others who are anxious about having someone represent them online because you're not really sure if they'll give out the right information. Which is a huge risk, of course - we wouldn't want false information on the Internet, would we?

Bill knew there were risks when he hired Abby. "I guess she could, as me, say something inappropriate or stupid. But then again," he grins, "that kind of behavior will only make more people think it really is me."

Bill may not be too Internet-savvy, but he does have someone in his office monitor Abby's posts a couple of times a week. And he keeps a copy of passwords to the accounts too, just in case. If there ever was a big falling out, Bill's willing to take his chances that Abby will have something better to do with her time than destroy the reputation of a landscaper near Dayton, Ohio.

Because the rewards are greater than the risk. Social media sites are for real. Bill's customers, and potential customers, are on these sites. In this era of doing business, owners like Bill need to be building communities. Spreading knowledge. Responding to his customers' questions or issues. Keeping his services in their minds. And Bill's growing base of fans, connections and followers benefit from his expertise, and think of his company as a resource when they need help. And they are out there, on these social media sites.

In the end, does it matter that Bill's social media success has been driven by a girl from the Bay Area with a piercing in her nose who supports the Democratic party? "Nah," says Bill. "She can do anything she pleases. As long as she represents me well online."

 

Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsized businesses.

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