Social media has transformed how businesses talk to their customers online. You can use social media to promote your business to new customers and to stay in touch with existing ones. Small firms can get the kind of exposure previously only available to big brands with big budgets
Social media pros and cons
Social media offers three key advantages:
- You can promote your brand to a wider audience giving you a potential sales uplift;
- Your customers can help to spread the word about your brand and their endorsement will also improve your results;
- You can deepen your engagement with customers and boost loyalty by addressing their needs and answering their concerns.
But this 'free' marketing carries risks as well as opportunities. There is a cost in terms of your time. You want to strike a sensible balance that lets you build an effective social media presence without it taking over your working day.
You also need to manage your online reputation carefully. It's vital to approach social media marketing in a professional and strategic way. Monitor any mentions of your brand and ensure that any online complaints are dealt with in a timely and effective way.
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Social media platforms
Each social media site has its own characteristics. The main sites are all free to use, though they also offer paid advertising options. You need to decide which platforms will work best for your business.
Twitter allows you to publish (tweet) short messages (280 characters maximum), links and images. You can comment on other people's posts or share (retweet) them with your network of followers.
Small businesses typically use Twitter to post news, provide links to key website pages and to share useful content such as blogs and guides. As an open, informal way to build connections, Twitter is a great place to attract customers and offer promotions. It can also give you a voice if you want your business to become known as a thought leader.
Although Twitter allows you to broadcast messages, it's fundamentally a networking tool. It's important to listen and respond, not just talk at your audience. Twitter is a useful way to track what your customers and competitors are talking about, and to get involved in the conversation.
LinkedIn is different to the other social networks in this list, because it's a professional network. It lets you maintain trusted connections, usually with people you've encountered in your professional life.
LinkedIn has become the de facto business networking tool, connecting millions of professionals around the world. It is an excellent platform for getting introductions to potential partners, building a profile for yourself, and recruiting people for your business.
Used carefully, LinkedIn can also help you to promote your own products and services, find new customers and keep tabs on your rivals. For example, LinkedIn groups allow you to connect with specific audiences, and can help you establish yourself as an expert in your field.
Many businesses have a company page, as well as individuals' own personal profiles.
Facebook is the world's biggest social network. If you sell to consumers, you should almost certainly have a presence there - many consumers go on Facebook to find recommendations and offers. Firms that sell to businesses can also find it a useful platform.
Above all, Facebook is a place to bring your brand to life and show the personality behind your business name. It's well worth posting a variety of content, including videos and images.
Although Instagram is owned by Facebook, it operates as a separate social network focused on sharing photos and videos. Instagram has a lot in common with Twitter. Most photos and videos are public, and you can choose to follow particular Instagram users.
Instagram can provide your business with an interesting visual communication medium. It's ideal for showing off products, or giving people an insight into what happens behind the scenes of your business.
Pinterest is an image-based social sharing site, popular with many small businesses that want to show off their products using good-quality photography. It lets you create a set of digital pinboards, to which you can pin images, articles and other content that you create or find.
For consumers, Pinterest has become an online shop window where they can get inspiration, browse and often buy – anything from food to fashion; and interior décor to crafts.
Pinterest is often used by retailers and manufacturers, who can categorise items into different boards. It's a social network that rewards creativity.
Getting started with social media
1. Set your social media objectives
What business impact do you expect your use of social media to have? Just building up the number of followers you have may achieve little or nothing.
2. Choose the right platforms
Who are your target audience(s) and which platforms do they use? Ask yourself how many platforms you can build an effective presence on. Don't spread yourself too thin.
3. Think about your brand personality
Are you aiming to be expert, interested, helpful, funny? Ask yourself why people will want to pay attention to you and share your posts. How will your social media presence reflect your brand?
4. Create social media profiles
Even if you rarely post, people are likely to find your social media profiles. What impression do you want to make?
5. Decide who will be responsible
GIving one individual responsibility makes it easier to build a consistent tone of voice and to ensure that all your posts are on-message.
6. Create a calendar
Plan to maintain a regular presence, and to tie in with any marketing campaigns. Set aside a regular time each day to manage social media. Use tools like Hootsuite to schedule posts.
7. Aim for engagement
Create posts that encourage people to comment and share. Ask questions to start a conversation. Use images where for added impact.
8. Don't oversell
The occasional promotional post is fine, but too much obvious selling will turn people off. Consider an informal limit - for example, one in six posts.
9. Consider advertising
Check what options each platform offers. Paying for advertising can be a short-cut to reaching your target audience.
10. Tailor your social media activity
Don't cross-post everything to all the platforms you use. For example, LinkedIn suits a different approach from Twitter.
11. Improve your website
Many of your posts will link to your website. Make sure you have compelling product pages and useful content that your audience will respond to.
12. Monitor and respond
Track any mentions of your business and products, and any reactions to your posts. Make sure you reply appropriately to direct comments and mentions.