We all hear stories about hobbies that transformed into businesses — or businesses that boomed — because of social media.
Perhaps you have a Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn account but haven't quite figured out how to turn social media into a marketing engine for your own small business.
These expert tips will provide the inspiration and tools you need to build an effective social engagement strategy, or boost the efforts you've made already.
There are two schools of thought (at least) on getting started:
Just start doing something, or develop a plan to guide you in your social media marketing activities. Either way, providing valuable content is key.
Even a simple outline can steer your social media marketing activities and keep you on track. A strategy will help you clarify who you want to reach on what platform, when and what to post.
"A plan allows you to look forward at opportunities that you can take advantage of," says Jennifer Gardella, a Pennsylvania-based social media expert who helps small business owners build their online presence.
As a first step, Gardella recommends building an editorial calendar for the year that highlights key holidays and events to serve as hooks for blog content. Valentine's Day, the Academy Awards, the Super Bowl, March Madness, spring cleanup and Back-to-School season provide golden opportunities for small businesses, she says.
At Oscar time, an "And the Award Goes To" blog post could highlight an employee who went above and beyond that month; before a big sports championship, you can call attention to an "all-star" employee. Make sure, when writing about that employee, to show how he or she helped the customer, says Gardella.
For Valentine's Day? "Falling in love works with every business," she says. A food-oriented business might post a recipe on its blog under a "falling in love with your kitchen again" headline. Back-to-School works for any business, too, says Gardella. Entrepreneurs can pivot off the season to sell spa treatments and house-cleaning services for moms, for example.
Use your social media platform, or platforms, to call attention and link to your blog posts. “You don't have the option to say 'I don't want to blog'" when doing social media, says Gardella.
While planning is important, don't let it overwhelm and freeze you in your tracks.
People often get hung up in figuring all their social media out before they start, says Molly Marshall, an Oregon social media manager and marketing strategy professional.
Marshall suggests entrepreneurs just get started. Post content that you feel is important to share. Social media is a two-way conversation that provides real-time feedback, and your audience will tell you what they need and want to see, she says.
Engage with people that follow you, "asking a lot of questions of your audience, asking for feedback … giving them calls to action," Marshall recommends.
Try to direct your social media traffic to valuable information on your website, says Marshall. A photographer might post a list of the 10 best local places to take family photos, or a to-do checklist to make sure wedding picture-taking goes smoothly.
"I would recommend that every small business has some sort of lead magnet, something that they can offer people for free in exchange for an email address," like a discount off a first order, she says.
“One of the biggest mistakes I see small businesses make with their social media is thinking that social media is the end game," with followers and comments the big prizes, says Marshall. “Social media is just a way to make people aware of you" — and follow your brand and grow to like you.
“The content that you're sharing is entertaining, it's educational, it tells the story of your business, and at the same time you're trying to get people to take the next step with you," says Marshall.
Eighty percent of your content should be helpful or entertaining and 20 percent dedicated to selling, according to Marshall. Your posts don't always have to be directly related to your business, she says, "but it needs to be somewhat correlated."
When posting on social media, remember to share relevant content from non-competitors as well as posts from your own website, experts say.
Having trouble thinking of content?
Blog about the "pain points" of your ideal customers or clients, says Gardella. Think about “the five things people ask when they call your business and five things they should ask you," she says. “You've just given yourself 10 to 20 blog posts for the year to start writing."
Kimaaya Rofick, a North Carolina-based social media strategist, suggests surveying your target market to discover their struggles. "Go where your ideal clients hang out and listen to what they are talking about and learn the language they use so you can use it in your social media copy," she says.
"Once you know more about your ideal client then you will have info to refresh your social media strategy," says Rofick. "It's all about providing tons of value to your clients. Don't be afraid to share as much information as possible."
Pick and Use Your Platforms
Pick one or two platforms rather than putting your business everywhere when starting out on social media, Marshall suggests. "Pick one platform and get good at that," then add more later, she says.
Rofick recommends using the platform favored by your target market. If your ideal customers prefer Facebook, she says, Facebook Live video-streaming is "a great way to get in front of your clients" and put a face to your business. (More advanced options include setting up a Facebook chatbot and using a Facebook pixel — an analytical tool you can place on your website to help refine your marketing.)
"Live video is huge and they all support it at this point, every social media platform has some ability to go live and stream live," says Marshall.
Instagram stories — photos or videos that stay up for 24 hours — also allow you to show clients your behind-the-scenes activities, says Rofick. "You can show them a process of how you create a product. The possibilities are endless."
Instagram Stories are more casual and organic, and lots of businesses are using them now, says Marshall. “The sooner you can get involved in something like that the better," she says.
Gardella considers LinkedIn, Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter essential, and says Instagram isn't optional if you own a photogenic business like a restaurant. Google Plus is critical, especially for hyper-local businesses, because it's linked to your Google Maps listing, making you easier to find in local searches, she says.
On whatever platforms you choose, remember to include contact info, links to your website, operating hours and, if available, a button allowing customers to call, message or sign up immediately.
Start conversations with your audiences and be sure to reply to comments posted on your social media accounts.
"You want to make sure you are developing a relationship with your audience. The goal should be to encourage dialogue and not just post," says Rofick. Doing Facebook Lives and asking your audience questions can "get conversations flowing," she says.
"Do a social media shout-out to local companies or companies that compliment your business that aren't your competitors," says Rofick.
For Instagram, she suggests setting up a business account, which provides data that can help with your strategy, and "liking" and commenting on other people's Instagram pages. "This is the best way to get more eyes on your page, but the key is to look at your ideal client profile, as these are the individuals you want to notice you," says Rofick.
On Twitter, ask questions, run surveys, share customer reviews or link to articles that would help clients, Rofick suggests. Consider pinning a tweet that contains a video about your business or a freebie signup, she says. If you own a pizza shop, do a search to see what people are saying about pizza and converse with them.
"Be responsive to any one that contacts you — good or bad comments. Many businesses use Twitter for customer service and it's a great way to speak directly to your market," she says.
Marshall recommends checking your social media accounts at least once a day, preferably more often, to make sure you're responding as needed. Consider social media tools to help track posts and drive new traffic to your page.
If you're on social media, you're opening yourself up to public comments and need to respond, Marshall notes. If a customer posts a negative experience, quickly say you're sorry to hear about it and request a private message so you can resolve it offline as soon as possible rather than handling it publicly, she says.
How often you post depends on the platform. Once a day or every other day is fine for Facebook and Instagram, but fast-moving Twitter calls for three to five tweets a day if you hope to be seen, says Marshall. She suggests investing in a good social media scheduling tool, like Hootsuite, Buffer or SmarterQueue, to prepare posts in advance.
You should blog two to four times a month — ideally, once a week — Gardella says.
And don't be afraid to show your personality.
Mind Your Keywords
To make sure potential clients find you in Google searches, remember to use relevant keywords and geo-locators in your blog and social media posts. If you're a locally focused business, make sure that description — Philadelphia home cleaning service, for instance — appears in your content or "about" or bio section.
Hashtags, popular on Twitter, Instagram and other platforms, can help potential clients find you and your content. Instagram lets you add up to 30 hashtags on photo captions, and research shows hashtagged photos generate greater engagement.
"Hashtags are an important part of discovery on Instagram, allowing brands to gain exposure to niche groups and specific areas of interest," according to a Simply Measured study. Hootsuite recommends checking out competitors' hashtags and those used by industry influencers.
Whether you draw up a detailed social media plan or take a first step with one platform and two or three tips, a relatively modest investment of time and energy can help you raise your social media profile and engage with new customers.
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