Social media is one of the most powerful branding tools available for your business. It's even replaced paid advertising for many companies.
"Before social media, one of the only ways to find customers besides advertising was word of mouth," says Julien Sharp, chief creative officer of Stylo Creative. "Social media has allowed word of mouth to go viral on the internet in a much bigger way. And you can get consumers to do your work for you."
That's because social media harnesses that natural desire to give advice and show off our insider knowledge. These tools also let you connect directly with your current and potential customers.
And we mean directly. Social media branding is not about fancy logos or slick copy; it's quite simply about you. First, people get to know you; then, if they like you, they'll check out your business.
Explains Lisa Barone, co-founder and chief branding officer at Internet marketing agency Outspoken Media, "Brands that have the best success use social media to form relationships with people. It's about helping people by answering their questions or jumping into a conversation. Once they know you, they'll subscribe to your blog or newsletter. Once they make that step, it's a lot easier to market to them -- and they're a lot more open to being marketed to."
As you participate on different social networking sites, it's important to create a consistent voice, Barone advises, whether it's chatty and casual, highly informed, witty or serious. Whatever you do, don't be too formal or try to sound overly professional. "People want to connect with other people," Barone says. "They're not as interested in the brand as in the people behind it."
Your Basic Blog
Frank Reed, owner of FT Internet Marketing, who blogs at Frank Thinking about Internet Marketing, says your blog should be part of your website, which will boost the search engine optimization of your site. "It becomes a body of work that tells your story better than your resume," he says.
The idea of writing makes lots of small business owners break out in hives, but you don't have to be Shakespeare. A great blogging strategy is to simply post a link to other content with a paragraph about why you think it's important, Reed says. Don't be afraid you're driving people away from your own site. "People who share information get the most benefit," he says. "You become an information broker."
For example, if you're an accountant, link to information about changes in tax law or money management. "These are things people may not understand and would want you to decipher for them anyway. You're telling people, 'I know about this,'" he says.
Sharp agrees. "Become a content curator," she advises. If you don't have time to write blog posts, simply gathering links to all the best content in one place makes you a valuable resource.
Getting Around Social Media
Blogs are not passé, but neither are they the primary destination that they used to be, Barone says. "Your blog is the hub, the spot you control, where you can put all your information," she says. But the satellite communities are where you should focus most of your efforts.
Every B2C company should have a Facebook page, Sharp says. But simply putting it up there and asking people to "like" you isn't enough. You should offer valuable content and resources that will encourage people to come back and also to tell their friends. An application built into your page will set you apart," she says. For example, a restaurant client of hers lets hungry folks order directly from the Facebook page.
While your company website should be your hub, don't expect people to flock there. With so many ways to consume content these days -- from Twitter to RSS feeds to Facebook to Google News, "You have to have a presence everywhere," Sharp says. You have to go to where your target hangs out online. Most blogging platforms will let you automatically send posts to Facebook and Twitter. Sharp likes Ping.fm, which lets you write one post and send it everywhere. You don't need to worry about duplicate content, she says. "Most people will only look in one place."
Twitter is another high-profile social media service, but experts are divided about its utility. Use Twitter Search to find out if people in your sector are using the service. If they aren't -- and even if they are -- "It can be a huge time suck," Reed says.
If you do tweet, don't waste energy trying to accumulate thousands of followers, Barone advises. "It's better to have 100 followers who read and pass along content that to have 10,000 followers who ignore me," she says.
A small percentage of your customers may have an outsized effect on your social media presence. Meteor Solutions has found that 1-2 percent of site visitors drive 20-40 percent of site traffic, and an even higher share of conversions or other outcomes. Meteor offers free and paid tools to identify influencers.
These super-sharers are different from regular site visitors. They're not motivated by entertainment or information so much as by building their own reputations.
"Often, influencers are motivated by being the first or only person to discover something. They're rewarded by the fame and thanks they get," says Ben Straley, CEO of Meteor Solutions.
Encourage them by giving them what they crave: exclusives, VIP treatment, setting them up with information or content that's not only easy to share but also has lots of value. For example, you could place influencers on a special email list, and then give them advance notice of a special sale or opportunity, and let them invite more people.
If this seems overwhelming, Straley's advice is to crawl, then walk before you run. First, use free analytics tools to see which social media sites are sending you visitors. Figure out what event or link drew people to your website. Next, develop a presence at those online places and create a special offer on your site to draw people back.
When it comes to spreading your brand around, it is important to be consistent, our experts agree. Consistent use of your logo and brand promise is important; even more so is authenticity. Says Reed, " Even if you hire someone to do some of your social media stuff, make sure nothing is being put out there that you can't deliver on," he says. "Social media is like any other form of advertising: speak the truth."
Time for a brand makeover? Learn more about how your brand can represent – and shape – your business in the Project RE:Brand webisode series by American Express OPEN. Project RE:Brand follows five small businesses as five creative agencies help them re-envision their brands.