Small Business and Social Media – Don’t Be Late to the Party

Reading recent headlines about social media sites Pinterest valued at roughly $1 billion and Facebook’s IPO potentially valuing the company at $104 billion can make your head spin. While such valuations smack of an imminent bubble, there’s no discounting the vast impact that effective social media participation can have on building brand awareness and customer engagement.

Despite the compelling stories and statistics, many small business marketers are so caught up in the day-to-day operations of running their business, the notion of social networking doesn’t get a second look as a way to solve many of their marketing problems. Here’s an excerpt from my new book, “Optimize,” that helps set the stage for how small businesses can realistically and practically get started with meaningful social media marketing.

optimize-cover-021012At a recent event I talked with a small business owner who was lamenting not updating his website and also that his competition was showing up “all over the place” online. The nature of his product requires some education and suffers from a few common misperceptions. The rapid advancements in technology of his particular product category are not very well known among his target consumer market. However, there’s a substantial amount of search volume and interest on social networks in the solutions his product provides.

This is a classic scenario involving a small business owner with limited time and budget. Limited resources call for content, optimization, and clever social promotion. One way to approach the situation would involve a blog and videos of the business owner talking about the most frequently asked questions prospects ask and showcasing implementations of his product. Providing answers through video would certainly engage prospects and inspire links and social shares. Except, how would anyone know that his great video content exists? Without a social network in place or advertising budget, it could take this business weeks or months before attracting significant sales.

The time to start building social networks isn’t when you need them.

The time to start is long beforehand, because it takes time to develop relationships. It takes time to listen, participate, create optimized content, and understand what triggers will inspire sales and referrals. If the small business owner I mentioned above stays the course with creating useful content, listening to customer feedback, and growing a social presence, he’ll not only increase his ability to reach a larger, relevant audience, but he’ll also be able to tap into a steady stream of new content ideas, customer referrals, and channels of content distribution that can reach even more prospective customers. With a healthy social network and community, he’ll have new channels for sharing optimized content that attracts links and social shares; essential signals for search engines to rank web pages that will drive even more new customers to his business.

Where to Start?

Many companies go after the most popular social networks with a “Fish where the fish are” approach. That’s not an unreasonable approach, but it’s a lot like putting up a billboard on a popular highway. What if your customers don’t drive down that highway?

Choosing a social network based on popularity alone is not effective. Why? Because relevancy rules on the social web. The social media monitoring, surveys, and customer research we talked about in our “Planning Phase” will give you the insight into what specific social networks are most likely for reaching and engaging your customers and connecting with industry influentials. At the same time, since there are a handful of social networks that capture the vast majority of consumer attention, the chances of one or more of them being relevant for your online marketing strategy is pretty good. When that’s the case, we need to look beyond the popularity of the network and also consider how best to use it for our purposes.

Customers Are Not Your Only Social Audience

A big part of effective content marketing isn’t just about having well-written and compelling content. You must be able to get that content in front of customers who care, as well as people who are influential and can pass it along to their networks. Your approach to social networking should be thoughtful about the customers you wish to engage directly, as well as the influentials who may not necessarily be your buyers, but can help spread the good word about all of that great content you’ve been creating. Forrester Analyst Augie Ray breaks social influencers down into three categories, each with varying influence (Mashable 2010):

  • Social Broadcasters (at the top)
  • Mass Influencers (middle)
  • Potential Influencers (bottom of the pyramid)

Of the influencers listed above, the Potential Influencers make up 84 percent of the population so it makes sense to consider that broad audience in the long tail portion of your content plan. Connecting with social influencers at any level can extend the reach of your optimized content to attract links, shares, and new customers.

The Social Networking Party Is Just Getting Started

Forrester’s digital marketing forecast for 2011 to 2016 cites social network investment to increase 300 percent over the next five years. The intersection of social content, media sharing, and networking with search, email, and even online advertising has made it an indispensable part of any effective online marketing strategy. Companies that invest in building social networks, developing communities of brand advocates, and social media-friendly content will have substantial advantages over their competitors who wait until the day they actually need those networks before beginning to develop them. It takes time to build relationships and meaningful connections. The more comfortable companies can get as an organization with social tools, the more empowered the organization will be at succeeding on the search and social web.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc. from Optimize: How to Attract and Engage More Customers by Integrating SEO, Social Media, and Content Marketing by Lee Odden. Copyright (c) 2012 by Lee Odden.

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