Blogs. Tweets. Posts. It is undeniable that social media is an increasingly important and influential part of our daily personal and professional reality and will only continue to grow with the proliferation of tablet devices and mobile applications. It is estimated that by 2013, 164.2 million Americans (or 67 percent of internet users in the U.S.) will participate in social networks.
With nearly 150 million Americans regularly accessing social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, social networking has been embraced by performers, politicians and the population at large. Even the White House has an official presence on the platforms mentioned above, plus its own blog-powered website.
For businesses of all sizes, some form of social media presence has become a requirement as well as a measure of “cool cred” and legitimacy. Consumers are turning to Facebook fan pages and Twitter feeds before company websites to receive news on their favorite brands and to engage with company leadership and peers. According to Sale Spider research, 75 percent of small and mid-size business owners plan to make social networking a larger part of their marketing mix in 2011, while two-thirds said social networking has already served to boost sales and revenue.
Creating Your Social Media Strategy
For small business owners, social media is an effective and inexpensive vehicle to quickly and easily deliver targeted messages to key audiences and generate widespread visibility for new products and business milestones. Moreover, social media can also function as a free focus group, providing a forum to engage directly with customers and keep your finger on the pulse of evolving preferences, perceptions and opinions.
However, harnessing the power of social media for business purposes is somewhat of a science. While a good number of you likely have personal accounts on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. navigating and leveraging these platforms to build visibility and loyalty for your business is a whole different ball game with its own set of rules and complexities.
So Where Do You Start?
As with any other business planning process, the first step is to determine what you want your social media strategy to achieve. For example, is your goal to promote a specific product or service, build a mailing list or enhance brand recognition in the real and/or virtual worlds? Or maybe you are seeking to recruit employees or debunk misinformation about your company?
Once you’ve identified your priorities, the next step is to define the target audience for your campaign, as well as the forums that are most likely to reach them. In addition to broad entities like Facebook and Twitter, there are multitudes of online communities and portals organized around geographies, demographics, pastimes, industries and life stages (e.g. CafeMom, BlackPlanet.com, MiGente.com, BabyCenter, etc.). As you become familiar with the full spectrum of options, you will be able to determine which sites are most likely to yield the best return on your investment of energy, time and potentially capital. Once you implement a strategy, services such as Viralheat, Buzzstream, Twitalyzer and Klout can help you measure effectiveness.
Rules of Engagement
Arguably, perhaps the most important part of crafting a successful social media strategy is building an online voice that is true to your brand identity while resonating with your key audiences. Though each social network has its own culture and mores of behavior, there are a number of best practices for operating in a paradigm where the premium is on personalization and the currency is conversation.
- Be Engaged – Contrary to traditional advertising, which tends to be a one-directional message push to a passive audience, social networking is premised on the notion of a dynamic and interactive relationship. Just like in real life, effective social networking requires cultivating and nurturing friendships. This means regularly sparking dialogue with your Twitter followers, blog readers, Facebook fans, LinkedIn discussion group members, etc, and responding to their questions in a timely manner. Similarly, it means understanding that you can’t just walk away from a difficult conversation or lash out when someone expresses an opinion you do not agree with. If a client criticizes your product, or service, on a review site like Yelp, Citysearch or TripAdvisor, you need to follow-up with a constructive response that demonstrates that you value the input and are concerned with their satisfaction.
- Be Interesting – Remaining relevant in an environment rife with competitive noise and an endless supply of audio and visual stimuli requires delivering interesting, useful and/or entertaining content on a continuous basis. Clearly, what’s appropriate will vary depending on the nature of your business but videos, webinars, podcasts and discussion posts on issues germane to your audience are a few examples of possible tools and platforms you can use to drive traffic and keep your audience engaged.
- Be Authentic and Transparent – The essence of social networking is by definition social. In some ways, it is no different than entertaining, with the business playing both the host and the guest. As the host of a forum, blog, etc., you are responsible for creating an environment where your guests can feel safe and comfortable. Simultaneously, you are being invited into your audience’s personal space which naturally involves a certain level of credibility and trust. Therefore, like in any other social setting, an aggressive, hardball approach is not likely to fly. Realistically, would you ever in real life, just walk up to someone at a function or on the street and launch into a product hard sell without any introduction or small talk?
With social networking, the best way to position your brand and generate positive word of mouth is to build confidence and affinity by being personable and honest about product claims and other disclosures. Several years ago, Wal-Mart learned the hard way that, in cyberspace, conversation cannot be manufactured or controlled. Wal-Marting Across America, a folksy blog purportedly penned by a couple who crossed the nation in an RV and parked in Wal-mart parking lots was revealed to be funded and run by Wal-mart’s PR agency. The Flog, or fake blog, was lambasted by the blogosphere as well as traditional media and harmed Wal-mart’s reputation.
- Be Committed – For all its benefits, social networking can also be time consuming. Determining who in the organization is responsible for the social media effort, and how much time should be allotted to these activities, is a key component of a strong social media strategy. According to Tom Austin, a VP at Gartner, social networking cannot “just be individuals” operating independently. To be successful, social networking must be focused, systemic and consistent.
Social Networking Platforms
Whether social networking is becoming the lifeblood of your business or if you’re just getting your feet wet, the following is an overview of the most popular platforms:
- Blogs done right allow you to share stories and messages in an authentic and informal manner and enable you to make a meaningful connection with your audience. They are relatively fast and simple to create, easily findable via RSS, and can promote ongoing conversations with readers. On the flip side, blogs are ineffective and even damaging if they are not rigorously curated, (i.e., published on an erratic schedule) not timely or topical for the target audience, poorly written or inadvertently controversial.
- Facebook and LinkedIn both enable you to join, or form, groups where you can directly interact with current and prospective partners, customers, influencers, etc. If starting your own group, it may be advisable to scope the landscape to identify how many similar groups exist and determine how to differentiate yours. Keep your groups and fan pages updated regularly with information on events you will be hosting or attending that may interest your community.
With Facebook, it is important to understand the differences between business and personal account functionality. For example, business accounts have limited access to information on the site. An individual with a business account can view all the pages and social ads that they have created, but will not be able to view the profiles of users on the site or other content that does not live on the pages they administer. In addition, business accounts cannot be found in search and cannot send or receive friend requests. One useful tool that Facebook offers is a vanity URL. This is a unique identifier for your page that is easy to share, remember and find on search engines.
- Microblogs, like Twitter or Yammer which generally limit comments to 140 characters, are useful for quick company announcements, pithy commentary on a breaking issue, marketing and link sharing and customer support. A number of companies have had success utilizing Twitter for promotions and giveaways as well monitoring conversations to target and communicate with potential customers.
Additional sites that you may consider exploring include:
- PartnerUp – online networking community for entrepreneurs and small business owners
- Talkbiznow – comprehensive interactive business networking site for business professionals
- Sales Spider – free social network for small and mid-sized businesses where more than 700,00 members expand personal networks, host and view live webinars and videos, place free classified ads, and gain instant and free access to over 30,000 sales leads and business opportunities
- StartupNation– real-world business advice to people who want to start a business and who want to grow their small businesses
- RaiseCapital – online forum for entrepreneurs to showcase their business ideas and capital needs directly to investors
- Ryze –social networking site designed to link business professionals, particularly new entrepreneurs
- Upspring – features business networking, local internet marketing/advertising and online marketing services
- Fast Pitch – a social network for business networking professionals to market their business, press, blogs, events and networks