Social media is a low-cost way to find new customers and reach out to existing ones. More than 40% of businesses using Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and blogs have generated a customer from each of them, according to Hubspot’s 2010 State of Inbound Marketing report.
But if you're brand new to social media, the process of developing a worthwhile business plan might seem intimidating. To truly understand the business ramifications of services like Twitter and Facebook, you first have to start using them -- and just signing up for an account is not enough. Engaging regularly on social networks is the only way to see their potential.
If your business is about to embark on this journey for the first time, here are five tips that will ease you in and calibrate your expectations.
1. Do Some Research
Doing research upfront can help you make the most of social media networks.
Howard Greenstein, president of the social media consultancy the Harbrooke Group, blogger at Start-Up Toolkit, and national board member at the Social Media Club, offered research tips on getting into social media:
- See if people are already talking online about your business by monitoring brand mentions.
- Subscribe to relevant local popular blogs, Twitter users, and review sites such as CitySearch and Yelp to see what people are talking about in your area.
- Ask your customers what social networking sites they use and what your business can do for them there.
2. Know You’re a Newbie
“Accept the fact that you’re a beginner,” said Chris Heuer, director of iStrategyLabs San Francisco and founder of the Social Media Club.
He encourages new users to build learning into the process. Spend two or three hours a month reading, learning, and getting engaged.
Use tools to monitor and manage time spent on social media sites. Greenstein said CoTweet and Social Oomph let users check their social networks without being on them all day.
Use failures as a learning opportunity. It’s not the failures that people remember you by on social media, it’s what you do to change as a result, according to Heuer.
3. Converse with Your Fans, Followers and Connections; Don’t Sell
Focus on building relationships and customer engagement. Heuer said people are not there to hear a sales pitch, but they’re there to learn something.
He noted one of simplest ways to start using social media is to get a Twitter account and tweet: Follow us for deals and specials. “It costs me nothing but my time to do, but I increase my business.”
He recalled a business tweeting about a three-for-one drink special and the response being larger than expected because people shared the deal with their friends. “People on social networks are social animals. They arrive in packs,” he said.
Virality can translate to more sales. According to Heuer, word-of mouth is an important element because customers will help sell for you, and it ends up reducing the overall cost of sales.
4. Cross-Promote Your Social Media Presence
Greenstein said to make people aware that your business is interested in connecting with them on social networking sites. He suggested putting information about your company’s Facebook, Twitter, or other social media pages on your store’s counter.
He recommended adding the links of your social media pages to your company’s website, business cards, e-mail signature, and your on-hold telephone message with something like, “We’d love to hear from you on our Facebook Page.”
Also, it's important to use consistent branding. Heuer recommended getting a digital identity for your small business, which is a secure username that works across multiple networks. Have that identity link back to your company’s website as well. This consistency will help users who are already interested in your brand find you on whatever network they already use.
5. Use Social Media Regularly and Reassess
If businesses create good content and offer deals using social media, Greenstein says, the audience will come back.
“It’s not going to happen exactly overnight and it’s not going to happen in the way that you think,” he said.
Pay attention to your audience. The simplest yardstick of social media success is how actively people are commenting on what you’re doing, according to Heuer. You won’t get interaction unless you’re part of it. He said it’s important for small businesses to interact with customers regularly.
Finally, don’t think you’re stuck with one strategy -- an ongoing adaptation of your social media methodology works best.
“It’s not about your time commitment. It’s about your commitment over time,” Heuer said.
Image courtesy of iStockphoto, mgstudio3d.