Is everyone telling you that your small business should have more "friends" online? Of course you already know that your customers have virtual friends as part of their social networks and they can "friend" someone on Facebook. On Twitter, they choose to "follow" another user and the old Facebook Page model used to allow you to become a "fan" of an individual or organization as well.
For all of these terms, "friend" is the one that most small businesses latch onto when thinking about a goal to focus on while using social media.
The problem with this logic is that people don't naturally become friends with brands.
Relationships with organizations are tough to describe as "friendship." People do, however, become friends with other people -- and often those people work for brands. The relationship with your brand, however, is more accurately described with the other two terms popular in social media: followers and fans. So when it comes to thinking about how you can get more customers engaged with your brand through social media, forget about friendship and focus on increasing your fans and followers.
Creating More Followers
Followers is a broad term that could mean anyone from your potential customers to your current customers. They are "following" you because they are interested in what you do or have a need that they are looking for you to help them with. They are not fans yet, because they may not believe in your brand -- but to this group, you have become relevant for some reason and your challenge is to keep that interest alive.
This is the type of individual that can help you grow because it is based on a real need. Followers typically drive utility because the more of them you have, the more useful you want to be for them to keep them loyal and engaged in the long term.
The best way to create more followers is through offering useful and engaging tools and content through social media. If you sell desks, help them arrange their home offices with information or interactive tools like room planners. If you are a legal firm, educate them about key legal considerations in specific areas and use tools like Twitter to aggregate and share useful information. Followers come when you give something of value to them, and they stay if you continue to offer that value.
Creating More Fans
Fans are at the next and deeper level. These are a subset of your customers who truly believe in your brand and want more opportunities to engage with it. They are the VIPs, the ones who will tell others about your products and services. They are the referrers that drive word of mouth for your business.
When it comes to social media, this is the group that you should try to focus the most attention on because they are your most vocal advocates, and typically most profitable relationships. Fans help you acquire more fans, and this can also be an escalation path for followers to become fans over time.
The information you share with followers will also be of interest to fans -- the biggest difference is that fans should be treated like your best customers. In an ideal case, they actually will be your best customers so this should come as second nature. Try to share special offers and exclusive invitations with them. Give them content or materials that are not available elsewhere. Ask them questions and respect and converse with them about their responses. Think of this group as your "inner circle" and treat them like it.
Rohit Bhargava is the author of the best selling marketing book Personality Not Included, a guide to how to use personality to promote your business. He has worked to build fans, friends AND followers many times and tries hard to appreciate each in their own way.