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Social Media Platforms: Build a network of followers at relatively low cost

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Social media platforms offer small business owners the chance to build a network of followers at relatively low cost. But getting the most out of these platforms requires a well thought-out strategy, writes Jo Faragher a freelance business journalist

Time was, to get your name out there as a small business, you’d have to take out adverts in local newspapers or the trade press; perhaps even set up a stand at a relevant exhibition. Such measures usually came at considerable cost, and it would be hard to measure the return on that investment.

The advent of social media has transformed the landscape for small businesses looking to raise their profile. Their biggest cost investment is time, and platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn make it possible to connect to a global audience, or simply make a deeper connection with local customers. “Social media means small businesses can have the same playing-field as larger ones,” says Lynsey Sweales, Chief Executive Officer of social media consultancy SocialB. “Their uses are many, from brand awareness and improving sales through to recruitment and customer service.”

At first, the array of platforms now available – from the established networks such as Twitter and Facebook to emerging ones including live video-streaming site Periscope and teen favourite Snapchat – can be daunting. A good start is knowing who your potential audience is and where they are likely to be, says Sweales. “Before you even start, park the social media part altogether. What does success look like and how will you measure it? Ask: ‘what do I need to talk about to get this audience interested?’”

For Claire Martinsen, managing director of upmarket fizzy drinks company Breckland Orchard, it was a case of taking a leap in the dark. “I started on Twitter when I was setting up the business in 2009,” she says. “I followed people I met at events, and people local to the business in Cambridge.” She attends lots of food festivals, so tends to post snapshots from these, as well as interacting with customers, many of whom are independent cafés.

The best thing about social media, says Martinsen, is that it allows her to convey the personality behind her business, whether that’s through images, links to Breckland products or directing people to her blog. “I’d like to think that, if you’re looking for our drinks online, you’d get a good idea of who we are and what we’re about,” she says. “Unlike larger businesses, we don’t have a whole hierarchy of people behind the scenes trying to sign off what you’re saying.”

Stay focused

If time’s an issue, don’t spread yourself too thinly, advises Ben Magee of online marketing agency Liberty Marketing. “Don’t try to do everything on all platforms; start with one and focus on growing your community there, and if that works then branch out,” he says.

Magee suggests drawing up a rough plan of content to share, but with room to make ad-hoc posts if something relevant comes up. Writing a blog is great for sharing on social media because you’ll have fresh content to link to, but don’t be afraid to comment on trends as they arise.

This is a strategy that’s worked for chartered surveyor Kirsty Harvey, who has run her own business, KTD Surveying, for three years. “Without social media, prospective customers might not know my business exists,” she says. 

Active on professional network LinkedIn as well as Twitter, Harvey tends to post about issues relevant to the property market, occasionally posting questions or answers in group discussions on LinkedIn, which has led to new business.

One aspect of social media that Harvey has found useful has been its ability to cement local business relationships. She participates in #hertshour, a one-hour slot for Hertfordshire businesses to have a virtual conversation on Twitter on a weekly basis. Similar get-togethers can be found nationally, so it’s worth seeking them out. Facebook also now offers local awareness ads at a nominal cost, so you can target people located near your business by appearing in their news feed.

Crucially, social media should be a conversation rather than an excuse to hard-sell – bombarding your audience with direct messages is today’s equivalent of the cold call. The occasional product plug is fine, but people are more likely to engage if you tell them about yourself.

“If you’re a bakery, offer the audience some hints and tips for their own baking; the next time they’re thinking of buying a cake or a loaf, you’re more likely to be in their mind,” suggests Jason Kay, Managing Director of social media management company UKV Solutions. And if your audience responds, engage in that conversation – leaving someone hanging could turn them off your business, he adds.

Return on investment

One of the more challenging aspects of using social media is directly measuring its impact on new business. It might be tempting to measure success in terms of new followers or ‘friends’, but this is misleading, says Sweales from SocialB: “Getting more followers isn’t the best indicator of success; it’s how you direct traffic to your website, or your shop.”

It is possible to add tags to links that you post (sites such as bit.ly offer this option) which can then be tracked back to a particular post or tweet, or attributed to an incentive offer through a code. One coffee shop offered 10 per cent off to any customer who came in and asked for their drink in a comically posh voice, so that it would be evident how many customers the offer was bringing in. In addition, free apps such as Google Analytics can help you measure whether visitors to your website have come from an email shot, a Google search or something you posted on social media.

For time-poor business owners, outsourcing your social media management is an option, but there are pros and cons to this approach.

Martinsen of Breckland feels strongly that her business reflects her personality, so she is against asking someone else to tweet or post to Facebook on her behalf. “I could outsource this to an agency, but it wouldn’t sound like me – my authentic voice,” she says.

But Kay, who manages social media presence for several businesses, believes that the key to outsourcing successfully is to be transparent. His company draws up a plan of social media posts on a weekly basis for clients, which they can review and edit if they’re not satisfied. “We sit down and create an extensive business profile document and make a personal connection,” he says.

Whether you decide to start small or plaster your name across several networks, simply being on social media isn’t enough. You need to advertise the fact on your business cards, your website and your emails. As a profile-building tool, social media can reap real rewards for the business – but your audience needs to know where you are.

Text, images and video streaming: the main social media platforms

The big guys

Facebook: tends to be more useful for business-to-consumer communication, and relies on people or their friends ‘liking’ your brand before they can see what you post

Twitter: without doubt the easiest platform to start with, because you can jump in on any conversation. Use hashtags to find out what’s trending or to become part of that trend. The downside is that you’re restricted to 140 characters

LinkedIn: sometimes known as ‘Facebook for professionals’, this platform allows you to search and connect with particular people in other businesses. If you operate in a niche field, get involved in relevant groups and engage with the conversation, to help build your profile and reputation

Instagram/Pinterest: a picture is worth 1,000 words, they say, and these sites allow you to build up a brand presence through images. They might prove particularly effective for ‘visual’ businesses, such as florists or architects

New kids on the block

Snapchat: popular among younger people, this app shows images for 30 seconds before they disappear – although they can be saved into a gallery on a mobile phone

Vine: a fun app where users can shoot six seconds of video that will then play on a loop – great if you’re at a conference or trade show, as people can get a feel for what’s going on

Periscope/Meerkat: owned by Twitter, Periscope is a live video-streaming app that lets followers see what you’re doing in real time via a webcam or phone camera. Meerkat does much the same thing, but this platform allows ‘likes’ and comments to appear in your Twitter feed

Dos and don’ts

DO

  1. Go in with a plan. Have a rough outline of topics you might cover, but leave room to post ad-hoc thoughts, too
  2. Use pictures or video. They play to our short attention span and are statistically more likely to be re-shared
  3. Go local. Find out if there are local tweet-ups or if there’s a local hashtag you can use – it’s a great way to meet other small businesses
  4. Be selective. Just because something was popular the first time does not mean people want to see it 20 or 30 times
  5. Use one of the social media dashboards such as Hootsuite or Tweetdeck, which bring together all your social media interactions in one place

DON’T

  1. Spend all your time on social media. Being more strategic about where and what you write is more effective than presenting your rambling thoughts or a string of similar posts
  2. Over-sell. Your audience will become turned off by constant self-promotion, or if you’re just ‘broadcasting’ offers and not listening
  3. Say something that wouldn’t align with your brand or could be taken out of context. It’s fine to have personality, but aim to stay professional. You can always have a separate personal account
  4. Ignore people. Social media is all about conversation. So if someone engages with you, make sure that you respond as soon as you can
  5. Give up. There could be many reasons you’re not grabbing attention on social media – think about changing what you post or being more active on another platform. It’s often about trial and error