Social Media is [usually] a Waste of Time

But an online marketing expert explains how you can make Facebook, Twitter, and Groupon, among others, work for your small business.

If you are like most small businesses, you and your team are stretched thin. If you even have a team. All day long you are servicing customers, delivering products, managing finances and doing whatever it takes to keep your business up and running. The last thing you need is to waste time. But for many small businesses, that’s exactly what they are doing when it comes to marketing with social media.

The typical small business Facebook page is a ghost town. It might have some pictures of the business, a few posts about an event six months ago, and a handful of followers who joined when the page launched. On Twitter, there might be a couple posts a month and none of them are related to any customer question. The same is true for Foursquare. Groupon is like going to the casino: there’s a good chance you’ll come home with empty pockets.

It’s hard to resist the promise of marketing in social media. It’s personal, efficient, and it is growing at a remarkable rate. Your customers spend most of their media time on these sites and they are discussing product experiences and researching purchase decisions. But that doesn’t mean that every business should drop everything and start a Facebook page or a Twitter account. This isn’t like buying an ad in the newspaper or the Yellow Pages; You don’t just set it up and walk away.

To make the most of your social media marketing, you need to have a plan. Social media is about having an ongoing conversation with your customers, not droning on about your business while they ignore you. You have to put in the time to cultivate your existing customers and attract new ones. Yes, this will take a little more time and thought, but that’s why it works. If you “set it and forget it,” you are wasting your time. Guaranteed.

Here are six steps to make sure you don’t waste time in social media:

1. Pick the right channels.

You know that location is everything in business, so make sure you are in the right place. What social media sites do your customers use? How do they use them? Where do they turn to research your product? You need to be where they are and where they are talking to each other. For example, if you run a restaurant, you should pay attention to Yelp. If you have a jogging-goods store, you may want to engage with folks on RunKeeper. If you offer laser hair removal you should know all about Groupon (if you don’t already).

2. Write posts for your customers, not you.

You can’t have a meaningful dialogue with customers if you don’t know what they want to talk about. Think about the questions you hear every day from customers. Look at what people are talking about on discussion boards, in blog comments, on competitor sites, and on review sites. Engage with active customers individually by answering their questions and asking for feedback. Their responses will give you ideas for new blog posts and places to engage folks, and may even lead to new promotions or offerings. Remember, social media marketing is about your customers; it’s not about you.

3. Give to Get: What offers can you make to drive loyalty?

Everyone loves a deal, and they love to share it when they find one. Access to offers is one of the biggest reasons people follow brands in social media. Give them something exclusive. Make them feel special and encourage them to share it with their friends on Facebook and Twitter. It’s a great way to get people buzzing about you. It will build your following fast, and it’s a heck of a lot less expensive than what you pay sites like Living Social or Groupon to distribute your offer.

4. Mix it up. Dull content is like Spam.

You’ve heard it before, but it’s worth repeating. Social media is a conversation. Conversations can be insanely boring if you say the same thing over and over again. Add variety to your posts. Ask for feedback and questions. Run a contest or a sweepstakes. Try humor, and candor. Invite people to submit photos of their family and friends using your products. Share the stories of your best customers. This is your community online, make it fun.

5. Budget enough time to engage, or else hire someone.

You are making a commitment to your customers and you have to follow through. Make it a daily routine. Schedule reminders in your Google calendar. Cover your desk with yellow stickies. Do whatever it takes. This is an important task that is part of your job. If you don’t have the time for it, find someone who does. Make sure that person understands your business completely, has the authority to solve customer problems, and can communicate with the public in a professional way.

6. Use the right tools.

Like any project, the right tools can make the job a lot easier. The Internet has many free tools you can use to monitor discussion and measure the impact of your efforts. Some of my favorites are Tweetdeck to manage Twitter, Topsy for trending discussion volume over time, and Socialmention for evaluating the sentiment of conversations surrounding your industry. To make your update posting easier, check out Posterous for distributing updates to all your networks and communities, and for recording voice messages on the phone that can be shared with your social network followers. You can see a more complete list of the popular tools here.

By Malcolm Faulds

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