Posted by : Amanda Stein Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Social media seems simple to those of us who use it for our personal social interactions, but social media for business is a different animal. It can be tough, and it's not really something that small businesses in particular, with limited budgets for more traditional marketing channels, can afford to ignore.

Facebook recently declared that it has over a billion users, and for social media marketers that's a billion possible customers with the levels of potential engagement that previous generations -- who had to make do with print and television advertising -- could never have dreamed of.

Engagement is the key concept here. Social media gives businesses a direct line to their customers, and vice versa. Today we're going to look at six simple guidelines that businesses can follow to make the most of an opportunity that is sadly wasted by many of their competitors, who "do" social media, but do it badly.

Choose the Right Networks

Not all social networks are equal, and some are more attractive to particular demographics than others. Facebook and Twitter are the dominant networks for the moment, and have enormous penetration. It's more than likely that any business is going to find potential and current customers and clients who are already users. However, the smaller social networks are also powerful methods for making contact.

Pinterest is a prime example of a smaller network that can have significant influence on sales. It's particularly popular among women, and depends heavily on visual media like images. So, if your business is eCommerce, then Pinterest is an essential target.

LinkedIn is heavily used by business people. If you are involved in selling services to other businesses then LinkedIn can be a potential goldmine.

Google+ is a general interest social network, which is very popular among technologically oriented individuals, photographers, and various other interest specific groups. Google+ is underpinned by an interest graph, rather than a social graph, which means that people make connections depending on what is of interest to them, rather than according to who they know. That’s great for businesses because they can attract followers who are likely customers.

Each network requires a different strategy. Obviously, you won't need long-form content for Twitter, but the best Google+ users realize that it is a cross between a social network and a blogging platform, and use it accordingly. It's a mistake to use automated services to post your Tweets on Google+, for example. The format and expectations are very different.

Have a Cohesive Strategy

Social media shouldn't be treated as separate from other marketing strategies and customer engagement efforts. Ideally, businesses should have a content and marketing strategy that integrates all aspects of customer engagement under a cohesive plan with clear goals.

Otherwise, divergent and contradictory messages will confuse users and reduce the overall effectiveness when it comes to making conversions and establishing a brand.

There should be one person with clear overall responsibility for setting that strategy, and it should be a trusted individual. They can be someone from within the company (who has sufficient time to dedicate) or a third party social marketing organization.

Social Media is a Conversation

The major mistake that businesses make with social media is using it as an alternative product catalog or using it for the hard sell. The goal in the end is to make sales or conversions, but think of social media as being at the top of the purchase funnel. The idea is to establish a brand personality and raise awareness among likely customers. Social media users are conditioned to see interaction as a conversation, and it's a real turnoff for them to see nothing but a list of products or sales messages.

Time Your Interactions 

If you're tweeting at 3 AM when your customers are asleep, or at 9 AM when they are just arriving at work, your message is going to get lost in the stream. There are studies that show the best times for engagement, and tools that allow for scheduling. Use these tools wisely, and don't try to over-automate the process; the point is to create a human presence for a brand.

Use Rich Media Content 

Evidence shows that videos and images get significantly higher levels of engagement than text alone. It can be beyond the budget of small businesses to generate a lot of visual content, but there are plenty of sources of free-to-use images out there to liven up your content.

Curate Content, But Add Value 

Large businesses can afford writers to create significant amounts of content specifically for them, but that's often not an option for smaller enterprises. However, sharing niche relevant content from blogs and other content producers is a great way to establish interest and expertise. Don't just Tweet a list of links though. Add value by discussing and summarizing the content, putting your own spin on it, being opinionated, and soliciting the opinion of your customers. Maria Popova's Brain Pickings and the associated social media is an excellent example of content curation done right.

If you have any social media tips and hints, or want to take issue with any of ours, feel free to let us know in the comments...

About Robyn Warner: Robyn works at Ink Technologies, and has been writing since she learned how to hold a pen. Check out more of her posts on printing on Ink Technologies' blog on ink and printing, or subscribe to her updates on Twitter (@InkTechnologies) and Facebook.

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