Social Media For Businesses: A Guide To Connecting With Customers Online
Social media is already a huge part of American life—and, like technology itself, its influence will likely only grow with time. Already, nearly 75% of online adults use social networking sites, according to Pew Research Center. They’re spending plenty of time cultivating their digital identities, too—American social media users check these sites an average of 17 times per day, a report from Informate Mobile Intelligence says.
With such widespread popularity, social media networks represent a ripe opportunity for businesses and nonprofits to attract new clients and stay in front of their customers. But for many leaders, these sites remain a mystery. How do you decide which social media platforms can help you engage with your clients, while also ensuring that the connections you make will return your investments of time and money? We’ve compiled a guide to establishing a social media presence based on DuBose Web Group’s research and experience in the industry. Let’s get started!
First, get to know your customer: This is a general tip that applies to all types of businesses and non-profits, whether you’re using social media or not. You need to know who you are selling to so you can tailor your message to those specific groups and advertise in the appropriate arenas. If you haven’t done it already, perform some demographic research and find out who is buying your products. Many times, your staff can be an excellent resource, along with reviewing who historically have been your best customers. How old are they? Does a particular gender have a greater need for your offerings? In addition to your “typical” customer, you may also want to consider untapped markets that would likely be interested in your products and services, but who haven’t made much contact with you yet.
Then, learn more about popular social media platforms: First, educate yourself on the major social networking sites that are popular right now. Learn how each one works and the ways people communicate within them. For example:
- Facebook is an extremely popular social networking website on which users create profiles with information about themselves. They can post “statuses” letting others know their thoughts and opinions, upload photos and videos, and communicate with others through private messages or by publicly posting on other users’ “walls.” Celebrities, brands, and businesses can maintain similar presences with essentially the same capabilities, and there are very few limitations on which kinds of companies or organizations find Facebook useful.
- Instagram is primarily a photo-sharing app where people can share pictures from their mobile phones. Users can “follow” each other, “like” or comment on pictures that appeal to them, and even “direct message” each other privately. Businesses that can produce fresh, visually pleasing, professional photo representations of their products and services tend to do the best on Instagram.
- Twitter offers a mostly text-based way of communicating, although posting photos and videos is also possible. Users “tweet” short, 140-character messages, either speaking to others whom they “follow” or just to air their own thoughts. Consumers may even contact the Twitter accounts of businesses that have displeased them (or whose products they really enjoy) in public tweets, so businesses that plan to use Twitter must be responsive and willing to dedicate time to addressing complaints and comments.
- Pinterest is a visually oriented “bookmarking” site where users can save images (usually representing links to web pages, but sometimes original content) to “pinboards” with themes of their choice. Friends can see each other’s boards, comment on their “pins,” and “repin” images to their own boards. As with Instagram, businesses that can share beautiful graphics have an edge on Pinterest.
- LinkedIn is a business-oriented website where people can network with others in their fields and post information about themselves and their business skills. It is similar to Facebook in many ways, but with more of an emphasis on networking. It is particularly useful for businesses that want to make business-to-business sales connections or find new staff members (in fact, LinkedIn offers some paid packages that can help businesses target potential employees with specific skills).
Match your target audience to the most effective platforms: What social networking sites are your potential customers likely using? Compare the platforms that you think are best suited to your business (including their capabilities and the amount of time you are able to invest in social media) to your client base. But don’t be too quick to make demographic assumptions—for example, young people may have dominated social networking in the past, but as of September 2014, more than half of adults aged 65 or older had Facebook profiles, according to Pew Research Center.
Start slow: You don’t need to launch campaigns on every platform. In fact, you’ll probably do the best job (and build the most genuine, useful bonds with your customers) if you keep a narrow focus, at least in the beginning. Once you’ve determined which social networking sites best fit your organization’s needs, create accounts on one or two you feel comfortable using (general business pages are free on all of the above-mentioned sites; most offer paid advertising options as well). Try taking some online tutorials if you don’t have experience in any of the platforms yet—YouTube is a great place to get educated! Keep in mind that “more than half of internet users (52%) use two or more of the social media sites…Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn” (as noted by Pew Research Center), so if you miss someone on one platform, you may just catch them on another! Facebook is a good place to start for most companies, though, as it is the most popular social media site, allows you to post a mixture of text, photos, and videos, and is fairly intuitive to use.
Set goals: What do you want your social media presence to do for you? Do you desire to use mouthwatering photos of food to draw people into your restaurant that evening? Encourage them to visit your website and read interesting information in the same vein as what you’ve recently posted? Assert yourself as a leader in the field so they’re confident your services are the best in the business? Whatever your goals are, establish them before you embark on your social media journey. Monitor your progress with measurable objectives and the number of new and existing clients who visit your site, the different pages they read, and the amount of time spent on your social media so you know how effective your efforts have been. Your web company should be generating monthly visitor reports to provide you with insight on your marketing strategies’ effectiveness.
Encourage people to follow you and your company: Once you’ve considered your goals and which social networks best meet them, create accounts on your selected platforms. Then, make it fast and easy for your target audience to connect with you. One of the best ways to do this is to include icons that link to your profiles on your website and in your e-mail signature. With one click, contacts and website visitors can sign up to follow you on some or all of their preferred social media platforms. It’s also a great idea to connect with or follow other organizations in your industry. They may be posting information that could give you ideas for your own business!
Produce useful content: The information you produce and share is extremely important. It should be relevant to your audience’s interests, helpful or interesting to them, and genuine. Posts that are obviously designed to hawk your products and services will typically not be well-received. As Susan Gunelius notes in an Entrepreneur article, “If you spend all your time on the social web directly promoting your products and services, people will stop listening. You must add value to the conversation. Focus less on conversions and more on creating amazing unbiased content and developing relationships with online influencers. In time, those people will become a powerful catalyst for word-of-mouth marketing for your business.” We have also learned that posting links on social media to easy-to-read and useful articles located on your website can help subtly draw consumers in. Once on your website, they can read more about you and may be inspired to contact you about purchasing your products and services!
A simple way to entice more people to read your posts is by including photos or video. In fact, according to marketing software company Hubspot, researchers have found that “colored visuals increase people’s willingness to read a piece of content by 80%.” Gary Vaynerchuk, the creator of digital media agency VaynerMedia, emphasizes the growing importance of video as well, noting on his blog that “the content you need to be thinking about creating and marketing on social for your business is video.” Make sure that your photos and videos are well-produced, however, or else you could end up making a bad impression!
One of the best things that can happen is for your social media posts to be so informative or helpful to your audience that they share them with others. That person’s contacts will see the post, and some of them may even share it, extending its influence further and further. This exponentially broadens the scope of those who will see your work in a natural, non-forced way. So, strive to produce content so great, original, and visually attractive that people will want to tell others about it!
Keep regular contact: To stay out in front of your clients, you’ll want to post fresh content to your social media accounts at least weekly (some businesses, especially tech-oriented organizations and those with a “hip,” young image, may need to be more active; others with a less internet-driven demographic can get away with less). We recommend devoting at least several hours per week to social media marketing, including posting original content, sharing relevant links from others (with commentary on why they are useful or important), monitoring social media accounts for mentions of your company made by other users, and responding to posts and direct messages from your customers to show them that you care. You can’t just begin social media accounts and expect them to draw in business themselves—someone from your organization will need to manage them, growing relationships like flowers in a garden—through tender, regular care.
The time it right: Consider the days of the week and times of day when your target audience is most likely to be using your chosen social networking platforms. Then, publish content at those times so that it has the best chance of being noticed (you may want to set reminders for yourself on your phone or computer to prompt you to post). Some social media programs will also allow you to schedule posts in advance so they go out at predetermined times. Our research has shown that Monday and Friday are typically not your best choices.
Be responsive: Many consumers, fed up with long waits on customer service phone lines or ineffective online processes, choose to take their complaints directly to companies’ social media accounts. You’ll want to be on the lookout for any such interactions and respond as soon as possible. (Most social media programs, like Facebook, will automatically send you an alert when your organization is tagged in a post or someone sends you a comment or message). Waiting to respond—or worse, never answering at all— will tarnish your image as an organization concerned with its clients’ happiness. Instead of viewing this as a burden, look at it as an opportunity to demonstrate to your social media followers how much you value their opinions! Review your social media settings to ensure that you receive the appropriate alerts when contacted, and adjust the settings to allow (or refuse) users the ability to comment on your posts as needed.
Reassess and make adjustments: After a few months, assess how well your social media marketing program has been meeting the goals you set out at the beginning of the process. If business has increased, great! Keep doing what you’re doing. But if you have noticed that you are investing lots of time in a particular platform with little to no customer engagement, reevaluate whether you want to continue on that site or try another.
Most social networking sites also offer paid advertising, which you may want to consider to boost your exposure and increase your audience. Social media platforms capture demographic information when users sign up, noting things like location, age range, and interests. For a fee (which varies based on which social media outlet you are using and how extensive you want your outreach to be), you can pay to target a specific section of the population with your ads (even users who live in a certain location!). This can be a lucrative way to lure potential new customers in, but make sure to monitor the results of your advertising to confirm you’re getting a good return on your investment.
You also want to balance the time it costs you or your staff to keep up with social media with the benefits your company reaps for its efforts. Continue to periodically reassess your program and its effectiveness as you go along. Also, set aside time to read social media trends, take short courses, and look for new strategies you could be using. As with other aspects of business, your goal is continuous improvement, and you can always be (and do) better!
The bottom line: Along with a good website, brochures, e-newsletters, mailers, and other advertising efforts, social media marketing represents a valuable part of any diversified marketing strategy. Even if you’re just a beginner with limited time to spend promoting your company on a few platforms, you can strengthen bonds with existing customers and extend your reach to previously unknown clients. All it takes is a little time, effort, and research. In this day and age, your organization can’t afford not to have a social media strategy!