By: Emily Bennington, Monster Contributing Writer
Successful small business owners know that now is the time for planning. There are budgets to create, tax forms to prepare, new employees to hire and -- oh yes -- the always-pressing question:
How can we generate more sales this year than last year?
Beyond getting the most from your sales talent, the answer to that question often involves finding more of the right kind of prospects.
So, as you think about yet another plan -- i.e., your marketing plan -- it’s a good idea to consider how social media can help you pinpoint and connect with new leads and job candidates.
Social Media Marketing -- Demystified
Indeed, by now most business owners know the impact of social media extends well beyond checking in with Aunt Karla in Topeka. However, the confusion frequently kicks in when it comes to understanding social media as a strategic business development tool.
When faced with the challenge of using sites like Facebook, Twitter, and You Tube strategically, many business owners become so overwhelmed with everything they could do that -- you guessed it -- they wind up doing nothing.
If so, here are four things to consider as you plan your social media marketing strategy:
- There are more than 500 million people on Facebook and approximately 200 million on Twitter. Those numbers will only continue to rise and, as any marketer worth their paycheck will tell you, it’s much easier to go where your audience is than make them come to you.
- A strong social media presence will also benefit your hiring top talent - whether full-time or seasonal -- - a critical advantage as the economy recovers and employee turnover ensues.
- Social media gives you the ability to connect directly with customers (and potential customers) around the world, not to mention respond to their questions, amplify their compliments, and diffuse their complaints in real time.
- As long as social media sites are free, they will certainly fit into your marketing budget.
Whether you’re just getting started in social media for your business, or you want to become more intentional in your approach, the following steps will help you enhance your online influence this year.
Step One: Define your Social Media Message
Dan Bennett (@d4bennett) is the Digital Strategy Director for JWT, one of the world’s largest advertising agencies. Bennett says that while social media offers businesses a way to “get their voice out there,” it’s critical to first consider what you want to achieve.
“All too frequently businesses, even the big ones, deliver unfocused ‘spam’ in this space that only serves to have a negative effect on them,” he says. Bennett recommends isolating your objectives (e.g. increasing customer loyalty, direct sales, building buzz, establishing yourself as an expert, etc), then consider what benefit you can deliver to your audience on a regular basis.
Once you have this determined you can pick your channels,” says Bennett. “For example, a coffee shop on a street full of coffee shops would likely want to differentiate themselves to drive loyalty and, in turn, sales. In this case, location-based rewards would be effective -- Foursquare Mayor drinks for free, Twitter followers get to vote for the weekly brew, etc.”
Matt Cheuvront (@MattChevy), cofounder of Proof Branding, a Tennessee-based firm that creates marketing and social media strategies, also notes the most successful businesses online use Web 2.0 to drive ideas, not just push their products.
“Social media is about instigating conversation, facilitating it, participating in it, and humanizing your brand,” he says. Cheuvront recommends that small businesses in particular stay away from creating “fan pages” solely for their organizations, but focus instead on facilitating a conversation around their core products and services.
To use the coffee shop example, if your business is called “City Roasters,” Cheuvront advises you set up a more general page for “Coffee Lovers” – and then use that space to engage your audience. “Nobody wants to talk about your coffee shop,” he says, “but everyone wants to talk about coffee.”
Step Two: Follow the “70 / 30” Rule of Engagement
Once your message has been clearly defined, this is where the balance of “consistent engagement” comes in, i.e. the point at which you are promotional enough to win sales, but entertaining enough to make people forget that’s your primary objective. The right balance, notes Cindy Morrison (@CindyWMorrison), is a 70 / 30 approach. “Talk business 70 percent, and the rest of the time let followers get to know you.”
Morrison turned to social media after the Oklahoma TV station where she had worked for more than 12 years didn’t renew her anchor contract. Hardly defeated, she wrote a book entitled Girlfriends 2.0, and with “no money for marketing”, sold more than 2,500 copies, successfully reinventing herself as a social media strategist in the process.
Morrison says the 70/30 approach helped solidify her new brand and has been central to converting “followers” into buyers. “It's much easier for someone to continue to work with you than to decide to start working with you. If you're already helping them or benefitting them on social media, it's not a leap for them to pay you for your services.”
Step Three: Think Small to Get Big
With so much noise and competition in the social media space, it’s easy to wonder how any small business could possibly stand out. However, according Dan Schawbel (@DanSchawbel), managing partner of Millennial Branding and author of Me 2.0: Four Steps to Building Your Future, the answer lies in a clearly defined niche.
“The number of fans and followers you have doesn't have a major business impact because of how saturated the web is right now,” he says. “The best strategy is to focus on a narrow audience and then cater resources, advice, and information directly to them every day.”
Ann Handley, author of the book Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business, recommends that you also avoid overly-pushy sales-driven messages. “To build an audience and your company brand with social media content,” says Handley, “position yourself as a reliable and valuable source of information that’s tailored to your specific market.”
Step Four: “Stalk with Strategy”
Another way to stand out in the clutter is to use social media to build (and leverage) relationships with your industry’s key influencers. “By offering something in exchange, you could you create a mutually beneficial social relationship,” says Dan Bennett of JWT.
Handley also recommends interviewing strategic partners and thought leaders to generate relevant online content. Also, “consider going behind the scenes to share an insider’s view of your company,” says Handley, “as well as showcasing active members of your online community.”
A Final Word of Caution
For as much as social media can do to help you grow your business, it’s important to note the one thing it can never replace: a good product. “Without a truly unique product or service,” says Schawbel, “A business won’t succeed regardless of how many people are on their Facebook account.”
Emily Bennington is coauthor of Effective Immediately: How to Fit In, Stand Out, and Move Up at Your First Real Job (Ten Speed Press, 2010). She is a frequent speaker to students and organizations on the topic of career success and the host of Professional Studio 365, a popular blog for new grads transitioning from classroom to boardroom. Emily is a regular contributor to the college section of The Huffington Post and has been featured on CNN, ABC News, and in publications including The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, and US News and World Report. Emily can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.