This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.
Successful social media marketing isn’t just measured by the size of a company’s fan base. Even more important than how many fans and followers your company can gain, is how many it can actually keep.
As of May 2013, 72 percent of online adults were using social networking sites, according to Pew Research Center. In addition, MBA Online reports that 8 in 10 social media users in the U.S. would rather connect with companies via social media than via corporate websites. And, social media campaigns have been shown to be more effective in generating quality leads.
By now, most small business owners understand that they can’t afford to ignore this important marketing channel. But once you’ve built up a fan base of social media followers, the often-ignored dilemma is, how do you keep them?
While some companies go as far as paying for subscribers, quality of engagement is more important than quantity of followers. “Social media users thrive on meaningful online relationships,” writes Mike Alton in Social Media Today. “Make this the focus of your social media efforts.”
A common social media mistake many small businesses make is remembering to share content, but forgetting to have the follow-up conversations that lead to real engagement, says Lori Gama, a social media marketing strategist.
Think of social media as networking, Gama advises. At a live networking event, the people who reach out to other people and have conversations usually win more clients than those who simply hand out business cards and talk all about themselves. On social media, it’s equally important to have those two-way conversations.
“We’re in an age now where we refuse to be subjected to one-way advertisements,” she says.
Start by being yourself. However customers relate to you in person is how they should ideally relate to you online, says Gama. “My number one tip is that whatever your personality is in real life, make that shine online as well,” she advises.
Providing Helpful Content
A great way to begin conversations is by being helpful, says Jason Falls, a founder of Social Media Explorer and Vice President for Digital Strategy at CafePress.com. “The key for any marketing channel, whether it be social or e-mail or advertising, is to provide your audience with content that is really useful to them,” he says.
In fact, some of the best social media success stories are local businesses that help customers they could never actually serve, says Falls.
Take Marcus Sheridan, an owner of River Pools and Spas in Northern Virginia. Sheridan saved his floundering business by using social media to answer questions about buying pools from customers across the country.
Each question Sheridan answers, even if it’s not from someone local, creates content that ultimately helps drive search engines to his website, explains Falls. “When anybody in Northern Virginia searches for something about pools, there’s a pretty good chance they’re going to come to his website first,” he says.
The real question is whether or not customer engagement will lead to an increase in a company’s social media return on investment, says Nichole Kelly, CEO of Social Media Explorer and President of SME Digital, a marketing agency. “Ultimately, the size of a fan base and the engagement of those fans should lead to a higher return on social activities,” she says.
To increase the value of the content small businesses offer to their audiences, she advises using the 80/20 rule. “Eighty percent of the content a small business shares should not be about its products or business, but should align to customers’ interests,” Kelly explains.
By helping others, companies can help themselves. For example, an iPhone case supplier won’t provide much value to its customers by giving parenting tips, but it could absolutely get engagement by posting tips and tricks for using an iPhone, says Kelly. “Posting content to add value 80 percent of the time allows the business to earn the right to talk about themselves 20 percent of the time,” Kelly says.
She advises using free tools like Google Analytics to help measure the return on investment gained from engaging followers. Be sure to create goals during the set up process in order to measure results, she adds.
Customer engagement also depends on how consistently companies post their content. “Social media marketing is like putting up a smoke signal—your tribe is going to be drawn to that signal,” says Gama.
The best days and times to post can vary by business. A car dealership, for example, may post more frequently on Saturdays and Sundays when people are out searching for car deals, Gama explains. An entertainment company, on the other hand, may post more often on Wednesdays and Thursdays when people are making their weekend plans.
Whatever your company’s posting pattern is, it’s important to maintain it, Gama says. “If you disappear for a day or two you have to build momentum again,” she said.
However, don’t post everything at once—something Allton says is akin to spam. Instead, spread out posts throughout the day by planning what you’ll say in advance.
Setting Aside Time To Post
So how does a small business consistently engage with customers at appropriate intervals when time and resources are limited?
Falls advises that small companies sit down for two-to-three hours to brainstorm social media content and topics for the next 60 days. Then, he says they should spend another couple hours writing and constructing the content—enough for one or two Facebook posts and two or three tweets per day. With five hours of effort, a small business can create two months of content, he says.
Businesses can then use inexpensive tools like HootSuite or Buffer to schedule automated postings of their content to different social networks.
While it’s okay to automate what you post to others, businesses still need to take the time to listen to customers in return, says Falls. “The fundamental key here is making sure that you don’t just set it and forget it,” he warns.
“Where small business owners often make mistakes is that they’re constantly looking for an easy button,” he says. “Social media is not a channel that you can walk away from for a while and not lose a lot of ground.”
Responding To Comments
When your customers have something to say, experts across the board advise small businesses to respond to them. Although it can be difficult to track mentions of your business on social networks that you’re not a part of, Allton suggests using a tool like Mentions, which provides real-time alerts anytime your name is mentioned on the web.
When comments are negative, companies should respond to anything that is a direct and incorrect assault on its reputation, advises Falls. When comments are positive, there’s no limit how often a company should reply: “All you have to do is say thank you, I appreciate it, or retweet it—something that helps share that positive vibe,” he says.
Even just 10 minutes a day of genuine listening—something as simple as checking in and answering questions—can make all the difference when it comes to engaging customers, says Falls. “It’s not just about connecting friends and fans and followers… it’s about really building relationships,” he says.
“Even though the social media relationships are often superficial, they often lead to top of mind awareness,” he adds. “Whenever customers are ready to purchase what you sell, you’re the best option they have because you’re their friend.”