The key to success in social media for small business does not depend, necessarily, on which online platform you use. It's in how you lay the foundation for your social media strategy, and then how you follow through on that strategy. Before you create your Facebook page, lay your social media foundation with these essential items.
Set up your home base
All the awesome networking in the world is kind of pointless if, at the end of your great Twitter conversation or Facebook interaction, your new potential client can't click a link and learn more about you.
While a social media presence matters, it matters because the goal is to turn those interactions into customer relationships. And potential customers, in order to become real, live, loyal, giving-you-money customers, are going to want to know about you, about your business, your services, your products, your pricing, your reviews, your history, your expertise. In short, they're going to want to know a lot more about you than that last 140-character tweet you sent or what you put in the Info portion of your Facebook page. Set up your home base on the Internet first: your business website, which may or may not include a blog.
Continuity of message and branding
We've talked before about how to create a professional online image, and if you haven't walked through those steps, go do so now before you start promoting your business through social media. Yes, there's a lot of talk about how people want to connect to a real person; they do. But they also want to know that the real person they're connecting to is a professional, an expert, and someone they can trust. Small business marketing consultant Marianna Hayes Chapman advises her clients to work hard on consistency, from their social media messages to the in-store experience they give customers. "Consistency is a desired customer experience that makes your customers feel like insiders," she says, and "...a sure meal ticket to success."
[Disclosure: I've worked personally with Marianna and can't recommend her enough as a small business coach, especially for locally owned businesses.]
Research, research, research! Know your target market. You've heard this before—if you're throwing promos and coupons into cyberspace with no idea who is reading your messages, you're wasting your time.
Get the information about where your target market hangs out online. Twitter attracts a particular set of people; Youtube attracts another; Facebook has a broader reach, but that doesn’t guarantee that your people are there.
Research will save you time and ensure that your efforts matter. Remember, you want to connect with the people who will be interested in your business, not just waste time connecting with whoever happens to be online when you are.
Specific way to measure ROI
How are you going to measure your success (or lack thereof)? If you don't have some systems for measurement in place—even something as basic as analytics on your website so you can see where your traffic comes from, when it comes and how long it stays—then your business succeeding in social media is as likely as a blind jockey winning a horse race. It could happen, but if it does, it will be purely by chance. You don't have time for chance.
Defined level of commitment
Building a social media strategy depends largely on what you can invest in it, both in terms of time and money. Make some cold hard commitments on paper, and then you'll be able to see exactly what your business is capable of in the social media world. If you have no money, you can't buy ads on Google or Facebook. If you have no time, and no employee to delegate the work to, you can't post regularly on your business blog.
Before you start building your profiles and putting up logos, figure out how much time you can invest on a daily and weekly basis, and how much money you can invest on things like a professional website, graphic design (logos, branding, etc.), copywriting, ghost blogging, ads, and so on.
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Someone has to be responsible for making sure that the regular work of social media marketing is done, and in a way that is consistent with the message and brand of your business. Don't underestimate the amount of time and energy that it will require.
At the least, you need to oversee what is being done, measure the ROI, and make decisions about how to adjust your strategy when needed. You may outsource or assign the actual work of social media: the content creation, the posting, the interaction. It will work best if you have one person in charge whose voice and personality can come through consistently across all your social media work.
Reason for people to interact with you
Social media is a thriving, busy, crowded place. You can jump in and add to the noise, get noticed and then ignored, or you can create and offer something of value to the people already there. Then you'll get noticed, remembered, noted, followed and appreciated.
In short, don't come to the picnic unless you bring your own bucket of potato salad to share, and make sure it's good. Otherwise you're just one more person making noise.
Social media strategy
Once you've worked your way through those first seven essential steps, you're ready to create a roadmap to execute your social media strategy. Decide which social networks you want to focus on (it can be more than one, but keep in mind that it takes an incredible amount of time to manage even just one effectively). Also, focusing on one main outlet at a time allows you to evaluate whether your strategy is working. If you see responses, keep putting in the effort. If not, decide if you need more time or if you need to make changes.
The most important thing to remember is that social media success takes time. It takes time in terms of time spent, every day and every week, to keep on producing value and getting it out there. It takes time to interact. It takes time to figure out what's working. And it takes time for things to start working.
Annie Mueller is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. She covers small business topics with a focus on lean/zero budget start-ups, business blogging, and simple (sane) ways business can use social media without selling their souls to Facebook. Her work can be seen online at Investopedia's Financial Edge blog, Young Entrepreneur, Wise Bread, Organic Authority, Modern Mom, and her own site, AnnieMueller.com. Find her on Twitter: @AnnieMueller.