The growing prevalence of social media is having a tremendous influence on how we get our news, the way we communicate and our behavior as consumers. In the business world, the impacts of social media are just starting to be felt, but the recent economic downturn has definitely sparked growth in the use of it as a marketing tool.
The findings of “The State of Small Business Report”—a 2010 study from Network Solutions LLC and the University of Maryland’s Robert. H. Smith School of Business—show that nearly 1 in 5 small-business owners actively use social media as a marketing strategy. How does that break down?
- 75% have a company page on a social networking site.
- 69% post status updates or articles of interest on social media sites.
- 57% build a network through a site such as LinkedIn.
- 54% monitor feedback about the business.
- 39% maintain a blog.
- 26% tweet about areas of expertise.
- 16% use Twitter™ as a service channel.
There is a downside, however.
The same study found that many business owners think there are downfalls: 50% feel social media uses up more time than expected, and 19% believe it has lost them money.
With all of the platforms out there—blogs, social communities, networking sites and collaborative projects—how do you figure out what is the right tool for your business?
You need a plan.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to not take the time to understand what you want to achieve, whom you need to reach and how to connect with your target audiences. With social media—just as with any other marketing, public relations or advertising endeavor—it’s important that you develop a campaign strategy for your business before you dive in.
To determine what your business goals and objectives are, you first need to understand the difference between the two.
Goals are broad intentions that are often abstract—i.e., what you ultimately want to achieve with your business—while objectives are more specific. To attain your overarching business goals, you’ll need to set some clear objectives along the way.
Objectives could be as simple as scheduling a specific number of blog posts in a given time period or creating a target goal for the number of new clients you’ll have by a particular date. You should keep objectives realistic and measurable, and it helps to have a timeline so you can gauge whether your efforts are on track or not.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that you should always establish a strategy before you come up with your tactics. Tactics may be the fun things to plan—special events, promotions, giveaways, contests, etc.—but a great idea that isn’t strategic isn’t really a great idea. To develop strategies and tactics that will deliver quantifiable results, map your plan backward from your definition of a successful outcome.
“One of the biggest mistakes a company or person can make is to invest time and money in creating tactics, only to realize that they don’t help you achieve your overall goal,” said Christina Witz, an account director with MWW Group who has overseen campaigns for clients like Volkswagen. “Taking the time to develop a plan is one of the most important things companies of any size can do.”
Understanding Your Audiences
When creating a social media plan, a lot of people overlook audiences—they assume they know who their audiences are and what drives their decision-making. If you want to effectively reach potential customers, however, you need to understand who it is you want to reach.
- Who are they (e.g., who is most likely to use your product and/or service)?
- What are their demographics (age range, approximate salary, marital status and family, etc.)?
- Where do they spend their time and money (i.e., what are their interests)?
- What types of messages tend to resonate with them?
There are several Internet resources that you can use to get information on consumers. These resources include Quantcast (www.quantcast.com) and Google Ad Planner. In addition, organizations like Experian® Marketing Services (www.experian.com), Sales & Marketing Management (www.salesandmarketing.com) and the U.S. Census Bureau (www.census.gov) can provide you with insight on consumer trends and background. Some of these sources are free; some will cost you money. You can also do a bit of personal research by talking to your current clients. Why/how did they become clients? Why do they stay? What drives their decisions concerning time and money?
Determining What to Say
Now that you know what you want to achieve and whom you need to reach, it’s time to figure out what you want to say. Again, there are a number of questions that can help you determine the right messages to promote your business and achieve your goals. Here are some examples:
- How do you want people to perceive you/your business?
- What words and phrases convey your unique attributes and abilities?
- What types of messages and words did your clients say resonated with them?
- How do you want to spur people into action?
In creating messages for social media outlets, you should understand how one site differs from another. An obvious example of this is a blog versus a Facebook post. Blogs give you the chance to fully vet out topics, cite resources and provide detail; a Facebook post is typically a few sentences. Although Facebook doesn’t have a 140-character limit like Twitter, Facebook posts work best when they are succinct and inspire online discussion. While your business could benefit from a range of social media tools—YouTube, Facebook, flickr®, Twitter, foursquare, Tumblr, Groupon™—your messages should match the format and its audiences.
As you research potential social media sites and tactics, ask yourself these questions: Does this take me one step closer toward my goal? Does this reach my target audiences? What kind of outcome do I want/expect? If you don’t have good answers to those questions, you may want to reconsider—at least for now.
You should also customize messages when using several different social media tools. As John Hinkle noted in his MarketingLifelines.com article, “5 Useful Social Media Marketing Advanced Tactics to Help Your Business Grow,” customers don’t like messages that look automated. Your messages should sound like you’re directly talking to your followers, and what you post on one networking site shouldn’t be the exact same message that you post on others.
Also make sure your messages use strong keywords in case you want to track coverage at a later date.
The unique nature of social media is that it inspires dialogue and interaction. Your messages should always encourage conversations with your customers and potential customers. Monitor popular health and fitness social media sites to see what people are talking about, and then take part in the conversation or create related topics that showcase your abilities and experience. You can also use tools like Twitter hashtags to get your messages “in the right place” and track the conversations that are happening around that topic.
Now that you have your messages out there, there are a number of free and paid sites you can use to track social media coverage. These include Social Mention (http://socialmention.com), Radian6 (www.radian6.com), CustomScoop (www.customscoop.com) and Twazzup (www.twazzup.com). Some sites can also highlight aspects of the coverage, such as tone, keywords and relevance, which are valuable in gauging how your messages are resonating in the social media world.
What you get from social media is strongly connected to what you put into it, meaning you should be prepared to be an active member of the community. You will want to monitor the conversations you start so that you can see how people are reacting and respond to queries, comments and questions.
Understanding how your messages are received by customers and knowing how your efforts are helping you meet objectives are important steps in figuring out whether what you’re doing is actually working. These steps will also help you better understand how you can expand and evolve your campaign as your business grows.
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