How to use social media to market your business — for free

Social media is fresh, fast - and mostly free. So it is not surprising that business’s use of social media to connect with customers and peers has exploded.

To make the most of it, like any form of marketing, you will need to carefully consider your objectives and marry them with social media’s most suitable form. You will also need to invest some time — and patience — for your efforts to bear fruit. Setting targets and monitoring effectiveness once you are up and running is also essential to get the most out of your social media efforts.

This guide will show you the key steps you need to take to build a cohesive and effective social media strategy.

1. Focus on what you want your social media strategy to achieve

1.1  Strengthening communication with existing customers

  • Social media provides a number of tools which enable you to have a dialogue with customers, both individually and collectively.
  • You can communicate with customers more frequently for a minimal cost. Your customer also has an easy-to-use channel to get in touch with you — at a time they can choose
  • You can use it to learn more about your customers, and they can get a greater understanding of you and your business.
  • Your customers can tell what you they like and don’t like about your business, products and services - and you can respond.
  • A strong social media strategy can stop complaints escalating and can publicly show that you are addressing them. However, remember that a weak social media strategy can inflame complaints in a very public manner.

1.2 Reaching new customers

  • Selecting social media channels used by your potential customers can provide valuable exposure for your business at a lesser cost than many traditional customer acquisition methods.
  • Careful use of social media provides another method of generating invaluable word-of-mouth recommendation for your business.
  • Social media can drive more traffic to your website. Potential customers who may not otherwise have found it will be exposed to links from sources they trust.

1.3 Raising your profile

  • You can raise your business profile or the profile of individuals within your business.
  • If you are in a market where differentiating between competitors is difficult, using social media to create a personal element to your marketing messages can be very effective.
  • Creating an outlet to offer customers your opinions and advice can set you apart from competitors who simply want to bill them.

1.4 Improving your reputation

  • If you use social media to generate customer feedback — and you are then seen to act on it — you can establish yourself as a service-led, customer-focused business.
  • Leading debates on blogs and forums can help you be seen as innovative and forward-thinking.
  • The easier it is for customers to communicate with you, the higher they will regard you. Social media gives them a chance to communicate at a time they choose, in a manner they choose, with a tone they choose.
  • But remember that honesty and integrity in your use of social media are paramount. Break your customers’ trust in these key areas and your reputation will be damaged.

1.5 Networking more with peers

  • Networking opportunities provided by social media allow you to more easily keep existing relationships warm without leaving your desk.
  • You will be able to keep in touch with all parts of your supply chain (and your competitors, if you wish) in a relatively informal environment.
  • You will be able to source new suppliers more effectively by using the word-of-mouth recommendation principle provided by social media.

2. Choose the right social media platform

2.1 Understand where your customers are

  • Like any successful form of marketing, you must target your efforts towards the channels that your customers or potential customers are using.
  • Look at existing social media outlets first to see if your customer base is using them. For example, are there discussion forums that cover your business sector?
  • Thinking laterally about your customers is useful — for example, you may sell specialist foods, distributed nationally. But it is also worth looking at existing social media outlets that cover local food groups or cookery courses. Go where your customers go, rather than expect them to come to you.
  • If your customers are clearly already using one particular type of social media, such as Twitter or Facebook, that is an obvious place to create your own presence. But be realistic — for example, if your customer base doesn’t use discussion forums, it is unlikely that the time and effort you may spend in building your own will bear fruit.

2.2 Micro-blogging for immediacy

  • If you want to provide a quick and open dialogue with customers, micro-blogging, using a platform such as Twitter that only allows short messages, is a good option.
  • It is quick and fast to manage, from anywhere you have an Internet connection.
  • You can update and respond to requests for further information immediately and publicly. All of your potential customers will be able to see new information straight away.
  • You will need to commit time to managing your micro-blog – regular updating and quick response is essential.

2.3 Blogging to raise your profile

  • If you want your social media use to be less immediate and more considered, blogging provides a useful alternative.
  • Blogging can provide character to your business, you or your staff.
  • Leading a constructive debate about issues your customers are interested in can strengthen your relationship with them.
  • Blogging is more relaxed than micro-blogging and more suited to longer forms of communication. For example, a micro-blog can tell your customers that you have launched a product, while a blog can tell them why and even describe the product development and the process behind the launch.
  • Blogging also provides another route for potential customers to find you if they’re not aware of your website.
  • If you use an ‘off-the-shelf’ blogging platform, such as Wordpress or MovableType, it will have an established distribution network which can spread your messages to more potential customers more quickly.

2.4 Social networking to connect with customers and peers

  • Getting involved with the social networks your customers use can differentiate you from competitors.
  • Engaging with customers can raise awareness and show you as a progressive and trusted supplier. But if all you provide is a sales message, you will just alienate your customers.
  • It can enable you to build a community of engaged customers who will spread your news and information for you, and recommend you to others.
  • Specialist business-to-business networking media can keep you on your industry’s map with comparatively little time and effort.
  • You can recommend your peers — and let them recommend you, and you can keep in touch with suppliers or former colleagues who would otherwise have drifted away.
  • Building an industry network can create new business opportunities, get answers to business questions and help you find new suppliers.
  • Some businesses also use social media as a recruitment tool, drawing on the personal recommendations of contacts to identify prospective employees.

2.5 Forums to enhance your reputation

  • Constructively participating in forums can significantly boost your reputation. For example, if you supply central heating services, contributing positively in the relevant section of a forum for new homeowners with heating questions will be good for you.
  • It is most effective if you freely share your expertise and advice. Responding on a forum with just a link to your website and an exhortation to buy from you will alienate forum users at best and will likely get you banned, damaging your reputation in the process.
  • If your business lends itself to frequent customer queries and there are no existing discussion forums, you can consider hosting a forum on your website. For example, if you are a home entertainment systems retailer, you could set up a forum where customers could comment on their purchases and discuss options between themselves as part of the buying process.
  • Beware though — customers may not always have unfailing praise for you and you will need to be ready to handle it more considerately — and publicly — than using the delete key.
  • You will also need to devote considerable time and effort to developing a forum — responding quickly and honestly and showing that you are not averse to debate.

2.6 Mix and match to meet your objectives

  • In some cases, you will find your best choice of social media is obvious. For example, you may already use Facebook personally and find that there is a group on Facebook that reflects your business interests and is used by your customers.
  • Sometimes you may find that you will need to combine social media channels to best effect.
  • For example, you may want to build a faster dialogue with customers but your communications needs can’t be handled in the short form of a micro-blog. In this case, you could consider using a micro-blog for pushing out messages at speed and providing simple responses to customers, while maintaining a blog for lengthier responses, linking to the relevant blog post from the micro-blog.
  • You should try to cross-promote your social media where it is suitable to do so.
  • For example, if you are contributing to discussion forms, have a link to your blog or your social networking profile in your signature. Or link to your site’s discussion forum in the profile area of your micro-blog.

3. Assess costs, resources and benefits

3.1 Bear in mind the time commitment

  • Whatever form of social media you decide to use, you will need to allocate time to manage and update it.
  • For example, if someone makes a complaint on your micro-blog and you don’t address it for a week, your reputation will be hit hard. But if you acknowledge it the same day, your stock will be raised, both in the eyes of your complaining customer and other readers.

3.2 Give staff responsibility – but manage it

  • If you have staff, consider how they can help manage your social media marketing. You don’t necessarily have to do everything yourself and staff may be able to add some character to your social media activities.
  • For example, if you are looking to raise your profile as growing business, your production manager might like to run a blog, outlining how exciting things are in your business and how projects and product development are progressing.
  • But make clear the boundaries between business and personal communication.
  • If your production manager’s blog conveys a sense of how busy and fulfilling work is at the moment, that is great. But if they use it to complain that there is no overtime being paid, that will damage your reputation.

3.3 Keep it in perspective

  • Exciting and powerful as social media is, remember it is just one part of your marketing plan — and allocate resources accordingly.
  • Try not to allow the maintenance of your micro-blog to lead you to have to rush the production of your latest company brochure, for example.
  • Set aside dedicated times each day to monitor and manage your social media. This is particularly useful if your staff help out with your social media efforts — after all, your production manager spending a whole day on discussion forums is poor use of their time.

4. Integrate social media into your marketing plan

4.1 Use social media as an additional channel to existing activities

  • It is unlikely that social media will replace more traditional marketing methods, so you will need to continue with those.
  • However, if you find that your micro-blog is generating more traffic to your website than your banner advertising, you could consider scaling back on ad spend. But remember, the more channels your potential customers have to find you, the better.

4.2 Consider the unique strengths of social media as part of your marketing planning

  • When you are revising your marketing plan, think about which of your existing marketing activities can be better delivered through social media.
  • For example would your company newsletter be more effective as a blog, allowing you to update more frequently at lower cost? Or would a discussion forum on your site lower pressure on your sales support line?
  • But only make changes if they match your customer’s behaviour. It is not a good idea to try to force customers to contact you via a micro-blog if they would prefer to phone.

5. Measure, review, revise

5.1 Set targets — but be patient

  • Like other electronic communication, social media benefits from being highly measurable.
  • Keep track of the time and effort you are investing in your social media by setting targets, such as increasing traffic to your website by, say, five per cent a month or generating 200 hits on your blog.
  • But remember you will need to give social media time — it is rarely an overnight transformation unless you have hit on something really unique. A micro-blog may hit your targets relatively quickly, while building a discussion forum can take months of hard work.

5.2 Watch for trends

  • Use the measurability provided by social media to consistently refine your approach.
  • For example, if you see that visitors to your micro-blog are driving more traffic to the product section of your website than your press releases section, consider whether you really need to offer links to press releases on the micro-blog.

5.3 Don’t be afraid of change

  • Use of social media is a fast-changing and growing art. Learn from what you do, and don’t be afraid of trying new approaches. Maintain what works well, but don’t be afraid to experiment. Unlike, for example, a wholesale redesign of your promotional material, dipping a toe into running a blog need not be costly.

6. Essential points to make social media work for you

6.1 Don’t sell persistently or aggressively

  • Plain sales messages will at best turn off the readers of social media — and at worst actively turn them against you.
  • Running competitions and offering special deals and discounts to your social media followers can be a successful strategy, however.

6.2 Remember, it is about conversation and connection

  • Social media provides a much more two-way communication than traditional media. It is just as much about hearing what your customers want to tell you as it is about you marketing to them.

6.3 Be patient

  • Using social media is primarily an investment in time. And it takes time for your presence to spread across the web. Keep a close eye on how it is working for you, but don’t lose heart if it doesn’t transform your marketing strategy overnight.

6.4 Consistency pays off

  • Use a tone for your social media that’s consistent with the messages your send customers through other channels. For example, if your sales catalogue is formal and functional, a hip and funky micro-blog will jar.
  • Regularly review and frequently update your social media. A frequently updated blog or well-managed forum will encourage customers to come back. But a sporadically updated blog or forum will dissuade them from visiting again.

7. SIGNPOST

  • Micro-blogging: Twitter (www.twitter.com), Facebook(www.facebook.com), Tumblr (www.tumblr.com), Ping.fm(www.ping.fm).
  • Blog platforms: Wordpress (www.wordpress.org), Movable Type (www.movabletype.org), Blogger (www.blogger.com/start), Typepad (www.typepad.com/pro/index-3b.html).
  • Networking: Facebook (www.facebook.com), MySpace (www.myspace.com), LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com), Ecademy (www.ecademy.com).
  • Bookmarking and information sharing: StumbleUpon (www.stumbleupon.com), Reddit (www.reddit.com), Digg.com (www.digg.com), Del.icio.us (www.delicious.com).