If you’ve read anything on using social media for business I’m sure you’ve come up against your fair share of articles essentially saying social media is the silver bullet to solve all of your business worries: access to millions of people, cheap, easy etc etc. Well, yes it is simple to sign up to twitter and randomly follow thousands of people. It’s pretty trivial to copy and paste a link to your homepage or latest product. It does take just a few minutes to have a social media presence. But the result is less like the global brand recognition you hoped for and more akin to standing in Piccadilly Circus shouting lines from your latest press release. People might hear, but they’re unlikely to listen and you’re even less likely to draw a crowd (unless they are lining up for insults). The fact is that making social media work for you is a skill. Some may make it look easy, but they’ve probably also invested a large amount of time learning about it, understand how it works and what pays off.
One of the first things to do before you even consider setting up a social media presence is to work out what you want to gain from it: market research, promotion and marketing, supporting customers, gaining other business partners, offering meta information about your business. I’m not going to get into the process of setting and measuring goals here. So if you don’t have them down on paper go and do that now.
Assuming you know what you want to gain from a social media presence the next step is to start identifying what sites/services/tools are going to help you the most. No two social media platforms are the same. Even if they look like copies they probably have a different user make up (ages, interests, expectations of the site). These all affect what kind of communication works well on them. Take time to learn what individual platforms have to offer and if they fit with your goals.
I’m pretty sure top of most people’s list of social networks are Facebook and Twitter but there are a whole host of others that may fit your needs. Don’t forget the more traditional forums and older sites as well. Niche forum sites can be a very good route to get to know your customers and gain some insightful feedback (as long as you are reading with your Internet filter goggles firmly attached). Investing in a few targeted social services that you understand and are actually going to use is going to be better for you in the long run, rather than trying to hit every new fad and leaving a string of abandoned pages. A neglected presence can be very damaging to your image: If someone leaves negative feedback and you don’t respond, if links become broken, if your customers try to contact you and you leave them hanging, these are all going to be more damaging than not having presence at all.
By investing in social media we’re not just talking about hiring someone to get you a snazzy design, although a strong visual design is important. What we mean is taking the time to understand what the platform has to offer. Lot’s of the social media sites have analytics built in. Facebook, for example allows you to see how popular your links are and get some strong data out, even though the site is generally quite closed. Twitter, allows you to search through a huge amount of data and find messages mentioning your company. You can also use hash tags to generate topics and monitor their flow. You can even integrate your existing analytics systems to see which links you share generate traffic and track conversions. Often these data gathering techniques require changes to your site or coming up with a methodical way to construct your source data. There are numerous tools to help ease this technical stage. The important factor is that you know what the platform can offer and what you want to get out of it.
As well as the techie wizardry you also have to invest time into monitoring the interaction your customers are having with your company. If you just want to put up an advert you’re far better off buying adspace and moving on. To actually have a social media presence you need to invest effort into the social part. This is the part that most often differentiates businesses that “get” social media and those that don’t. A business presence on social media sites should be thought less of an advert and more of a dialogue. You have an opportunity to actually get close to your customers and talk with them, this is the real benefit of social media sites for businesses.
We’re not trying to dissuade you from jumping on the Facebok, Twitter et al. train. But before you jump make sure it’s the right train and it’s going in the right direction. If we didn’t think the Internet had huge amounts to offer business we wouldn’t have set up a company to do just that.