Just diving into social media marketing for your small business because it seems “like everyone else is” could be a very bad idea! First off, if you are starting a new small business, launching social media channels right off the bat may not be the best use of your limited resources. Even if social media is “free” it can still involve a significant commitment of time and energy.

If you do decide to embark upon social media, you want to start out with a consistent strategy with carefully defined and realistic objectives right from the start.

(Note: In this presentation I am focusing solely on using social media as an editorial or free media, not using it for advertising, which is a very different discussion that I cover under Internet Display Advertising.)

Unrealistic Expectations for Social Media

Too many small businesses enter social media with unrealistic expectations; specifically, they hope to quickly achieve a boost in sales. Well, that’s just not likely to happen. Social media can do a lot of great things for small businesses, but quickly bringing in new customers does not tend to be one of them.

Core Differences Between a Website and Social Media

Second, many small businesses owners tend to view maintaining a social media presence as similar to establishing a website. They figure a lot of the effort is in just establishing the profiles and initial pages. They may realize that some updating may be required, such as when the company has major news.

But they have no conception of the day-in, day-out constant social media updating and effort that is typically required to be really successful in social media. In fact, many experts suggest that a business using Twitter effectively should be sending out several high-quality tweets every single day. Let me emphasize that’s not just several tweets a day: that’s several high-quality tweets a day.

So with small businesses giving their overwhelming marketing effort to directly increasing sales, with a misconception of the benefits and how best to use social media, and with a significant time commitment to really make social media successful, you can appreciate why there has been frustration with social media among small businesses.

Social Media Effectiveness

In a recent survey of 1,200 companies discussed in The Harvard Business Review, only 12 percent of the companies surveyed felt they were using social media effectively. To me, that seems if you allow for rounding and survey flaws, it is possible that virtually no companies truly feel they are using social media effectively.

Of the handful in the study who claimed success, they focused less on trying to nail down immediate sales and more on brand building, watching customer trends, and trying to get feedback on ideas for new products.

When asked to list the three primary benefits from social media, the number one response, at a whopping 50 percent, was increasing product awareness (basically brand building). Increase in new business was way down the list in position #7, with only 11 percent citing it as one the three primary benefits. The second-ranked attribute was increased traffic to their website, at 30 percent.

The article summarized that given the lack of clarity of the benefits of social media, the companies were generally engaging in “controlled experimentation” with the media. In other words, they were hesitant to make it a huge priority. The article also concluded that the best users use social media as a two-way conversation, such as through creating online customer groups and watching trends.

Of course, establishing so-called two-way conversations can take a lot more time and energy—a great, fun exercise, maybe, if you are a large corporation with 10 unpaid student interns looking for something to enjoy doing. But maybe not so great if you are a sole entrepreneur already working 80 hours a week to keep your cash flow positive!

Can social media work for your business? Yes, it can. But it is highly unlikely to happen easily or overnight. It is highly unlikely to without a strategized plan, without a significant amount of energy, and without a significant amount of time.

However, if you can do the work yourself, and if you can find the time, you can do it. And social media is not going to burn up your cash, unlike conventional marketing. It could have huge long-term benefits, particularly because over time social media can be very powerful at generating word-of-mouth advertising for your business, which can grow and grow.

The Heart of Social Media Is an Ongoing Two-Way Dialogue

The heart of social media is typically having a two-way dialogue with your audience on a regular basis. Thus, with a social media audience expecting both two-way dialogue and highly frequent communication, the time commitment goes up, up, up. And if that weren’t enough, the social media audience can be very choosy—after all, they have unlimited options.

There are a million other companies on social media, so they expect the dialogue from you to be not just interesting but also compelling. For example, they don’t want to just hear about your latest product offerings; they might want to hear about the inside story on latest trends in the industry, or if you are impressed with any of your competitors’ offerings, or if you are running a special prize contest or offer just for social media fans.

If you initiate social media accounts but don’t respond at all or respond very slowly to posts from the audience, you can be seen as a firm that is unresponsive to its customers and worse off than if you didn’t try social media in the first place.

Website Blog Alternative

If you don’t want to invest the time and energy of two-way communication and very frequent updates that are expected in social media, and/or if you want to keep your communications more focused around your product, you may be better off, at least at first, by just focusing on having a good company blog on your website.

With a website blog, users’ expectations are somewhat different. You would only be expected to make posts when you had some new development to report and your audience wouldn’t expect two-way communication there.

Start with One Social Media Channel

If you do decide to venture into social media, most small businesses would be better off focusing on one channel first. Focus on one social media, really get to know it, have the time to make frequent updates, and really do it well.

Yes, there is technology out there so that you can do multiple updates to various social media sites all at once, but that just muddles the issue that each social media channel is unique—each one has its own attributes and flavors. So, content optimized for one channel is not necessarily going to be ideal for all channels.

The key here in trying one channel isn’t just getting it set up, but getting a handle on the amount of time and energy to keep new posts constantly flowing. Don’t simply choose the social media because it’s the largest. Choose the one that fits your demographic best. And also consider how effective that particular channel could be in developing a conversation with your audience.

Developing a Strategy for Social Media

Think of strategy in two parts. First, what is the audience you want to reach? This may not be as obvious as it seems.

For example, if you have two product lines—a high-end super-performance product and a lower end more generic product—you may want to focus 100 percent of your social media efforts on potential users for your high-end product. These users may have a much higher likelihood of discussing your product on social media than users of the lower end product. In social media, you want to narrow your target audience as much as possible, to the point of skipping secondary audiences altogether to concentrate exclusively on your best prospects.

Second, what is the message you want to convey in social media? This may or may not be the same as your general strategy, or even your general marketing strategy. For example, let’s say your company’s strategy is to differentiate yourself by quickly delivering pizza. In social media, instead of focusing on your key delivery service differential, you may instead opt to focus on the ingredients in your pizza, how pizzas are made, and the history of pizza—all of this to help position your brand as delivering quality, authentic pizza.

What Are Your Objectives for Social Media?

Your objectives may include a mix of the following. The more you explicitly think through and figure out how to measure your objectives, the better off you will be.

  • Sales
  • Traffic to website
  • Email signups
  • More social media subscribers
  • Reposts by subscribers
  • Build repeat customer visits
  • Build referrals
  • Create “raging” fans
  • Build email mailing list subscribers
  • Get ideas for new products or services
  • Seek feedback on current product/service and delivery
  • Field customers’ complaints so you can be aware of them, address them, and work around them in the future
  • Build the brand
  • Position the company as caring about the customer—i.e., being customer focused
  • Position company as cool place to work
  • Build interest with prospects
  • Position company and its products as cool, hip, or fun
  • Position company as serious player in the industry
  • Keep more up to speed on the industry and competitors

Write Up Your Social Media Plan

After you have set your strategy and objectives, write up a plan, including answers to such questions as:

  • Who?
  • How much time?
  • How often?
  • Which social channel?
  • What would success look like?
  • What’s the time plan?
  • What are the milestones?
  • Who will “own” the posts?
  • What will the content be?

This doesn’t have to be like a mini business plan; it could just be a dozen bullet points.

17 Strategies for Social Media Success for Small Businesses

  1. Find a consistent time each day to focus on social media. It doesn’t have to be a long time. It doesn’t necessarily have to be your highest energy time. But it is important that it be frequent and consistent.
  2. Increase the quantity of posts.
  3. Find a “voice” or personality. Boring and dull isn’t going to help in social media. Opinionated or quirky works better.
  4. Get creative. Contests, surveys, giveaways. These things allow your audience to feel heard, involved, and appreciated. You don’t need expensive items or elaborate contests; just keep it fun, interesting, and upbeat.
  5. Re-promoting the content of others for a good portion of your updates can work wonders. It can let you choose some of the best other material you have seen. But be sure to credit the source or it could quickly backfire, and of course, don’t quote passages so long that you risk copyright issues.
  6. Look around the Web for cool content to share. Consider setting up a newsfeed to help find relevant content quickly.
  7. Expect some negative feedback. Don’t ignore it—respond to it. In some cases, it may be serious enough to respond one-on-one with the user. If you aren’t getting some negative feedback, your approach may be too boring and dull.
  8. Social media takes a while to get a handle on. Consider observing how other companies handle social media before jumping in. Note the most common topics relating to your industry. Or find a friend with social media experience to help you.
  9. Social media is by nature audience/customer centric. Go out of your way to show interest in your audience.
  10. Share small things about yourself without sharing too much. Share a little about your hobbies, perhaps, but not about your divorce!
  11. Show some personality, but keep it on the brighter side.
  12. You don’t need to write Pulitzer Prize–winning essays, or even complete sentences—you can look casual—but don’t look sloppy or uncaring; check your spelling.
  13. Welcome new followers.
  14. Have a landing page on your website optimized for visitors from your social media. That means give it a look and feel that your social media visitors would expect. And have a simple call to action prominently displayed on the page. Are you trying to get them to sign up for a free trial? An emailed newsletter?
  15. Promote your social media presence widely, including throughout your website but also elsewhere, such as on your business cards and in your advertising.
  16. Use metrics to track your progress. Keep track of which social media is driving traffic to your site and to where on your site.
  17. Review your results and reconsider your strategy and tactics. Social media may not involve a lot of cash, but it will take a lot of time, and time is money. Use it wisely. But at the same time, don’t expect results from social media overnight or next week. You need to allow several months to accrue meaningful results. 

13 Common Social Media Mistakes Made by Small Businesses

  1. Blatantly selling your product or service.
  2. Not spending the majority of your posts outward focused—that is, outside your company and your products.
  3. Not having a livelier personality in social media than on your website.
  4. Sharing too much personal information.
  5. Not having a social media plan that establishes a consistent decorum, including how to answer posts.
  6. Removing negative posts.
  7. Using only auto respond to reply to posts.
  8. Not posting often enough.
  9. Posting erratically.
  10. Not making your audience feel “special.”
  11. Not posting content that truly stands out.
  12. Expecting some quick sales to new customers.
  13. Expecting fast growth of subscribers.

Social Media Channels for Small Businesses

Facebook

This is the leading social media platform, with more than a billion worldwide users. The famous “like” system can help show interest, especially in a new or unknown product.

If your small business is getting started with just one social media channel, Facebook would be a good bet, especially if you are selling to consumers. It is the largest channel, and though it is heavily used by businesses, it is still positioned primarily as a consumer channel. Because it is so ubiquitous, some consumers will look for a company’s Facebook page even before looking for its website.

Facebook is a good channel for showing photos, presenting your company profile, and interacting with users.

Google+

Google+ is in many ways comparable to Facebook. They have a so-called “+1” feature that is similar to the “like” symbol on Facebook. Google+ is smaller than Facebook, but still a major social media channel.

Google+ is similarly a reasonably good bet for small businesses, but it reaches a smaller audience than Facebook does. I have read that activity on Google+ can help your search engine results on Google.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn is positioned as the professionally oriented site. While many people posting profiles on LinkedIn may have them on other sites, such as Facebook, the context of LinkedIn makes it a very different setting.

For a small business, LinkedIn is particularly valuable for touting the credentials of key people at your company. It is also widely used as a recruiting tool, so you can be sure that your competitors and headhunters will use it to lure your key people away—but you just can’t worry about that.

If your small business is a professional services company, LinkedIn would be a slam-dunk first bet. In fact, people would expect to find your professional profile on LinkedIn.

I think another thing that helps set LinkedIn apart is that business users tend to focus primarily on the profiles. Hence, even if you just put up a profile on LinkedIn, you are getting the primary benefit from the site without any additional effort.

LinkedIn is heavily used by job hunters and recruiters, and you will get requests to link to people you hardly know or don’t know at all. But these distractions aside, especially if you are in a professional services company, you want to have a solid profile visible when a prospective client is checking you out.

Twitter

Twitter allows its users to send short (140 character) text messages, which are called “tweets.” Especially on Twitter it is commonly practiced, if not expected, to resend (retweet) others messages that you think your audience will find interesting. Of course, a big hope is that your audience will also retweet some of your own original messages. Some small business owners tweet both personally and for their company.

Twitter gives you speed and immediacy and impact, so it can be a particularly powerful form of social media. However, it is an interruptive media, meaning it is all the more important that your content be worthwhile.

I see Twitter as having an authoritative feel, and because it is well known as being used by hot celebrities, it has a cool factor. If you are looking to just use or emphasize one social media for your small business, Twitter could be a great candidate, especially if you feel confident that you can develop an interesting stream of “tweets,” which can include a healthy portion of up to even 75 percent retweets of others’ material. When using Twitter, I suggest sending at least two or three tweets a week. I’ve seen several social media experts suggest sending five every single day for maximum effectiveness. But don’t compromise the quality of what you send, especially because of the nature of this disruptive media channel.

YouTube

YouTube is a website for video sharing. Most videos are of a personal nature, but there are plenty of business-related videos on the site as well. For most small businesses seeking to get started with just one social media channel, YouTube would probably not be the choice.

However, though YouTube can have the feeling of being particularly frivolous or silly, it has been used by a lot of small businesses. It may be particularly effective if you are a consultant seeking to build recognition and credibility on a particular topic. If you do try to promote your business on YouTube, you want to keep your videos very short (two to three minutes), impactful, and ideally off-the-wall while still delivering your message.

Instagram

Instagram is a service to share pictures online through other social media sites. It allows users to quickly alter their photos. You can also send comments with the photos. If your business is particularly visual, it is possible that Instagram will help build your message.

Pinterest

Pinterest is a kind of online bulletin board where users place, or “pin,” objects, pictures, and videos. You can enable users to “pin” from your website using the “Pin It” feature.

If you are feeling clever, and have a concept of how you could make your business stand out, Pinterest could be an ally. It would help if your website itself had some cool things on it that Pinterest users could pin. Experts suggest that to get the most from Pinterest you need to be pinning three to five images per day. For me, I couldn’t possibly imagine being creative enough to find even one compelling image a day!

Conclusion: Social Media Is a Challenge for Small Businesses

Just because social media doesn’t involve parting with cold, hard cash doesn’t mean that it can’t be an expensive proposition for small businesses. Time is money. And to do social media in a meaningful way can take a whole bunch of time. It will also take some energetic and creative thought, empathy for two-way dialogue, and a lot of patience. It can, in the long run, be very powerful in driving ahead your business, but for many small businesses the results have been unclear.

Takeaways You Can Use

  • Time is money. Just because social media is “free” doesn’t mean it comes at no cost.
  • Don’t count on social media to quickly attract new customers.
  • Effective social media involves a two-way conversation between you and your customers.