How to use social media to advance your business
By Reed Richardson
For many small business owners and budding entrepreneurs, budgets are especially tight these days and finding the capital to generate new sales leads, kick off a marketing campaign, or hire a customer service representative is likely a difficult, if not impossible, task. But by taking advantage of the new social media tools now available, a small business owner can accomplish many of these same tasks for little to no cost and just a small investment of time.
The term social media is actually a catchall phrase that refers to a lot more than just popular social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook. It also encompasses social search sites like Yelp and Craigslist, RSS publication and distribution tools, social bookmarking sites like Del.icio.us and Digg, and micro-blogging platforms like Twitter. All of these can be used in various combinations to enhance your business's image online, drive traffic to your company website, and find new customers.
But before dipping a proverbial toe into the social media waters, a skeptical entrepreneur might still ask the question: Does using social media really help build a business and put money in the cash register or is it just another digital diversion to waste my time?
Why social media is worth the effort
John Dillinger famously replied to a question about why he robbed banks by simply saying, "That's where the money is." The same response might now be appropriate when answering a small business owner's doubts about the value of social media, since in the past few years social media and networking sites have experienced astronomical growth. In fact, this past August something of a symbolic turning point took place, when the amount of time Internet users spent on Facebook surpassed that of time spent on all Google sites (which includes Gmail and YouTube).
Nevertheless, a recent survey of small and mid-sized businesses by the London-based media research firm Daryl Willcox Publishing uncovered a stubborn reluctance to embrace social media. While the adoption rate among these companies was found to be accelerating quickly, having doubled between December 2009 and May of this year, the survey also discovered that the segment had a long way to go to catch up with society in general, as a bare majority-54%-of small and mid-sized companies surveyed had any kind of social media presence, as compared to 66% of American adults. Of those businesses still balking at social media, roughly one-quarter don't participate because they say they lack the technical know-how; more than one-third blamed a lack of time; and a final 31% said they don't bother with social media because their customers don't use it either. (To see the results of the whole Willcox study, go here: http://sourcewire.com/releases/rel_display.php?relid=59009.)
However, this latter notion-that social media's popularity is relegated to a fairly narrow demographic segment of society-is increasingly untrue. Indeed, two recent studies by comScore and Pew Research have found broad societal gains in social media use. According to those respective surveys, more than three out of four women and nearly half of all Americans over 50 years of age (and more than a quarter of those ages 65 and up) now visit a social networking site regularly. What's more, the rapid adoption rates in these segments means they are fast approaching parity with younger adults. (For more on these surveys, check out http://comscore.com/WomenOnTheWeb and http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Older-Adults-and-Social-Media.aspx.)
As for the idea that there just isn't enough time in the day to devote to social media? Well, few businesses would consider it wise to ignore tasks like networking, increasing brand awareness, and attracting new customers, but those are precisely the things that the Willcox study found a large majority of small businesses were getting out of their social media strategies. In fact, that same study found more than one-third of smaller businesses were taking the time to post daily updates to the three most well known social networking sites: Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
This broad level of dedication wouldn't exist if businesses weren't seeing positive results in return, explained survey author and company president Daryl Willcox. "The number of companies participating in social media on a daily basis shows the growing importance of this marketing channel," he says. "The fact that 60% have reported a positive impact on their businesses shows
Foundation to a strong social media strategy: a solid company website
If you're an entrepreneur convinced that your business needs a social media presence, but you don't know how to go about it, simplicity is the best approach. Think about building your social media profile bit by bit, spending small, discrete amounts of time on it each day rather than trying to roll out an extensive campaign that encompasses every social networking site in existence. Often, the key first step is to build a firm foundation with your company website or, if you have one, your business blog, and use it as your social media launching pad, working outward from there.
"Your primary website or blog is the tool that ties all of your social media activity together," explains Duct Tape Marketing founder John Jantsch, in his helpful online social media primer "Let's Talk Social Media for Your Small Business." "Your activity on social media sites or spokes functions primarily as a way to lead prospects back to the much more fully developed content that resides on your website." (To read Jantsch's online guide to social media, go here: http://ducttapemarketing.com/socialmediaforbusiness.pdf.)
"Your hub is the place where you can engage your prospects in a total education-based campaign that helps them understand that you have the solutions they are seeking," Jantsch adds. "In fact, you can think of a great deal of your social media activity as a way to create awareness and an initial level of trust substantial enough for someone to want to know more."
Three easy first steps to starting a social media strategy
That so many small businesses still have no social media presence is perplexing precisely because so many of these same businesses' owners already have personal social networking profiles on sites like Facebook. "For these folks," Jantsch notes, "the addition of a Facebook Fan Page is the most obvious solution."
Once you have established this Facebook presence for your company, you can then begin to leverage it for greater customer engagement and sales by offering expert advice, posting reader polls, running consumer contests, and dishing out promotions or discounts only for fans of your company Facebook page. "The fan page allows you to create a business-only page with a great deal of functionality and settings that allow you to open your page up to the world far beyond your current Facebook friends," Jantsch explains in his online social media tutorial. "In addition, your updates and posts on your fan page spread to the wall of all those who become a fan on your page, making your business presence even greater."
Entrepreneurs that are perhaps uncomfortable with the free form nature of Facebook can start with a profile on the business-based social media site LinkedIn instead. LinkedIn has a more traditional vibe than the sometimes zany customer contests found on Facebook and is mainly thought of as a tool for serious networking. But LinkedIn can also be a great way to find new job candidates and promote special events connected to your business. Likewise, it has other features, like group discussions and its Q & A function, that allow business owners to demonstrate their expertise on a subject, which fosters greater networking and enhances their company's reputation. (For more on LinkedIn groups and Q & A's, go to http://learn.linkedin.com/groups and http://learn.linkedin.com/answers/.)
Finally, setting up a free Twitter account can be a cheap and simple way to build both a public relations and customer service channel for your business. Twitter's short, 140-character limit on messages, called "tweets" in Twitter parlance, can, at first blush, appear to be too small to be of much good. But for many businesses, Twitter has now become the favorite online place to quickly offer status updates, announce new product launches, or respond to customer complaints.
In fact, the latter has now become one of the most important ways that businesses use Twitter to their advantage. Case in point: Comcast, which faced a public relations nightmare two years ago when a customer, who had been inexplicably left without Internet service for 36 hours, turned to Twitter to vent his frustration and his complaints quickly gained national media attention. (Click here: http://techcrunch.com/2008/04/06/comcast-twitter-and-the-chicken-trust-me-i-have-a-point/ to read a blog post recounting the incident.) But because the company had an active Twitter presence itself, online Comcast reps jumped in to rectify what the business's antiquated phone-based customer service system could not. In the end, what could have been a brand disaster turned into a more positive story about the company's online response capabilities. It's a lesson that small businesses would be wise to heed as well. (To see a handy guide on using Twitter as a customer service tool, check out this article: http://mashable.com/2009/05/09/twitter-customer-service/.)
Taking the next step
Pulling these separate social media threads together to create a cohesive online marketing campaign can be tricky, but there are plenty of samples available out there to use as general guidelines. (Click here to see one: http://samhowat.com/small-business-social-media-marketing/.) Eventually, your business might want to tie in some of the more advanced features mentioned earlier, like RSS distribution tools or social bookmarking, but one very good way to find out where your next emphasis in social media should be is to steal ideas from somewhere else.
For instance, it's always a good idea to check out what your direct competitors are doing and it can be eye-opening to benchmark your approach to some of the more successful social media campaigns in corporate America. (To gauge your business's level of online social engagement versus business titans like McDonalds and Starbucks, take this quick, five-step test here: http://engagementdb.com/Rank-Yourself.)
But even if you're an entrepreneur whose next step is really a first step, ignoring social media, hoping it will go away, is not a recipe for long-term success, especially in a cutthroat economy. "Tough market conditions mandate small businesses to think and act creatively to sustain themselves," notes Connie Steele, a Director at Network Solutions who tracks the small business segment in partnership with the University of Maryland's business school. "Social media can be the best friend for small business owners who constantly seek new ways to maximize productivity while keeping costs low," she explains, adding, "It is not a question of why small businesses use social media but rather when the adoption rate will accelerate this year."
This article is the second in a series to focus on website best practices for small businesses. Be sure to check in soon for Part III, which covers working with a website designer.