Understanding social media marketing

Social media has become a core marketing tool in just a few years. It allows even the smallest business to interact with a wider world, creating a dynamic online presence with real customer engagement.

Social media has the immediacy of email and the same low cost base. The main investment is your time. Unlike direct marketing methods, however, social media allows you to create a public presence and establish a dialogue with a wide audience - including existing customers, new prospects, your competitors and suppliers.

Consumer and business customers alike increasingly expect to find firms on the main social networks. If you're not there, they may look elsewhere.

As a small business, you'd be well advised to focus on the social media sites that best meets your needs. Twitter allows businesses to engage in a dialogue with a wide audience. Facebook is increasingly being used as a friendly online face of many customer goods firms that want to build relationships with their customers. LinkedIn is the de facto professional networking site.

It's not a good idea to spread yourself too thin on social media. Social media marketing demands time and effort. Handled with care, social media can show your business in a positive light and help to reinforce your brand identity. It can even boost sales - although it's not wise to overty sell in the social space. Handled badly, it can damage your reputation. No matter how small your business, its pays to develop your own social media strategy and draw up guidelines so that your messages consistently hit the mark.

This guide will help you use social media to its maximum potential, avoiding common pitfalls and building your business through online word-of-mouth.

1 What is social media marketing?

1.1 What social media marketing is – and is not.

Social media marketing is an online communication tool that you can use to promote your business.

You can use it to promote your business as a whole, specific products or services, or individual members of your team.

These tools allow you to communicate openly and directly with customers – although, as they can publicly answer back, this is not without risk.

As with any form of promotion, it's essential to carefully select the most appropriate social media tools for your audience. Using the wrong channel is at best a waste of effort and at worst can damage your reputation.

If you are selling to consumers, you can use social media as an immediate, low-cost and highly targeted marketing channel. If you are selling to other businesses, social media may be more useful as a networking tool.

Your social media profile is your online business card, so make sure it is up-to-date and presents you and your business in the best possible light.

Social networks allow businesses to answer questions, share knowledge and help others. Social network etiquette frowns upon blatent sales pitches.

You will need to invest time and thought into your use of social media.

1.2 What social media marketing does.

Social media marketing creates a two-way channel between you and your audience that is fast and easy to use.

You can get honest feedback, build your business’ reputation for service and customer care, and show these attributes to potential customers.

You can promote new products, services and people cost-effectively.

If you are selling to other businesses, you can use social media to foster better relationships along your supply chain, extend your networks and get in touch with peers or suppliers that you have lost touch with.

Social media can allow you to forge relationships with key online influencers. All the main social networking sites offer tools to help you find and make new connections and you can also join relevant groups.

Analytics tools such as Social Mention allow you to monitor the effectiveness of your social media activity.

Being active on social media sites allows you to pick up on key trends in your sector - and keep your eye on your competition.

2 Understanding the different types of social media

2.1 Micro-blogging.

Sites like Twitter that allow instant, public communication are one of the most high-profile forms of electronic marketing. You can publish short comments and links to web pages, blogs and images. This allows people to publicly respond, encouraging conversation. By using links you can boost traffic to your website.

Twitter allows you to build up a network of followers and in turn to follow people that you want to connect with. It's a place to show your best side - sharing knowledge, responding to comments and allowing you to retweet posts that grab your attention.

2.2 Blogging.

Blogs allow you to write in more depth on subjects that support your marketing effort and which will appeal to your audience. The best blogs use a direct and chatty tone of voice and are often more successful when they offer interesting opinions. In most cases, readers can respond and leave comments.

You can publish a blog on your own company website – but it is often easier to use free or low-cost platforms such as WordPress which provide pre-designed templates.

A blog allows you to provide more depth than micro-blogging, but you should still try to keep anything you write short and interesting to your target reader.

2.3 Online networking.

Social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn allow you to build valuable networks and set out your stall.

Consumers generally join online communities such as Facebook
and keep tabs on areas of personal interest they share with others. Whatever your business’ interests, there are likely to be relevant groups on Facebook that you can join.

Business-to-business networking is dominated by LinkedIn
. You can post a personal profile or one for your business, and invite colleagues, peers and even competitors to join your network.

2.4 Discussion forums.

Intelligent use of discussion forums can play a big part in raising the profile of your business.

You can host a discussion forum on your own website and encourage customers to use it for questions, comments or complaints. Or you could join other relevant forums and provide support and advice to other users.

If done sensitively and honestly, using forums like this can generate positive word-of-mouth recommendation for your business. But if you use it for straight advertising or unconcealed sales messages, it will turn forum users against you.

2.5 Bookmarking and information-sharing tools.

Social bookmarking and information-sharing tools can help you create a ‘buzz’ about your business – particularly new product or service launches.

There are several sites that enable you to flag up items of interest, including Stumbleupon
and Reddit
). The approach is similar to someone sending a ‘Have you seen this?’ email to a friend. But instead of clogging up your inbox, users of these services mark web pages they view as ‘interesting’ and would like to recommend to others. The number of recommendations is aggregated by the service and users see what their peers believe to be the most interesting pages on the web at any given time.

For that reason, your company’s website in itself is unlikely to feature on these services unless you are doing something noteworthy. But if you have a new launch, the relevant page on your website may get more visits over a short period of time.

3 Using social media to promote your business

3.1 Work out how you can put social media to good use.

Social media is very flexible. You can use it for a variety of marketing purposes, such as:

  • Promoting offers – particularly time-limited ones. For example, you could use a micro-blogging site to announce 10% off any orders of a particular line within the next 24 hours.
  • Inviting feedback and carrying out market research. For example, blogs can be used to explain some background to what you're trying to achieve with a new product or service, and invite customers of suppliers to get involved in testing.
  • A route for customers to access your PR. For example, your micro-blog could provide direct links to your press releases as soon as they are published on your website.
  • Establishing a reputation as a customer-focused business, committed to good service. For example, running a forum that answers customer queries quickly can win you significant goodwill.
  • Positioning yourself as an active participant in your sector, willing to get involved in industry-wide debates and initiatives. Posting regularly on forums or blogs with constructive suggestions can positively raise your profile. Done well, social media can help you become a recognised expert in your field.
  • Cementing relationships with existing suppliers, recommending good ones and finding new ones.

3.2 Match the medium and the message.

As with any form of effective marketing, you will need to make sure you are sending the right message to your target market, using the right channel. There is little point in setting up a micro-blogging campaign if your target customers aren't online on a regular basis.

If you are trying to connect with a younger audience, make sure you know which social network is the flavour of the month. This can change rapidly – so you will need to keep a close eye on trends.

3.3 Be realistic about control.

Remember that many forms of social media positively encourage feedback – and not all of it will be good.

You will, at the very least, need to accept this will happen, and it is best if you have a clear idea how you are going to handle any problems that may crop up. Timely and honest response is essential. Simply editing or deleting any negative or mildly controversial comments will damage your reputation. Besides, it may simply be impossible to do so.

You can help avoid some of these problems by carefully creating your social media presence in the first place.

3.4 Consider resources.

Managing an effective social media presence for your business will require time and dedication. Regular updates and timely responses are essential whichever form of social media you use – otherwise visitors simply won't come back.

Make sure you have the time and resources to make your social media presence lively, vibrant and up-to-date.

4 Integrating social media with traditional marketing

4.1 Remember that social media activity does not exist in isolation.

Using social media is most effective as an integral part of your marketing plan.

It can turbo-charge some of your other online and offline marketing - alerting a wide audience to new products, services, offers and events.

Always promote your recent activity on your social media sites - such as blogs, success stories and case studies.

Make sure your social media supports supports all of your other marketing activities including advertising, PR, exhibiting, email marketing and website content.