Getting Started with Social Media

I wrote this for the Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly Small Business Success Guide. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in launching your social media strategy…and how have you overcome them?

Getting Started with Social Media: 7 Steps to a Successful Launch

One of the great things about social media is that there are few barriers to entry. There’s no cost to start an account on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other sites, and the technology is usually easy to learn. As a result, many small businesses begin using social media as a marketing tool without much forethought. And shortly thereafter, many find themselves mired in problems—limited engagement with the audience, few friends/fans, confusion among their employees about what’s acceptable,  no time to devote to their social media presence, or no momentum to sustain their presence.

Just like any other aspect of your business, success in using social media is contingent upon planning. Social media can yield tremendous benefits, but thinking things through early makes it much more likely that you’ll reach your long-term goals. Here are seven steps to consider before launching your social media presence:

1. Decide whether social networking is right for your organization. Social media can benefit just about every business. However, it’s not a magic bullet. Like anything else worth doing, using social media takes time and resources away from activities that might be of greater benefit. Those considering a social media presence, then, should begin by considering a few important questions:

  • Are you willing to put in the time? What you get out of your social media presence is directly proportional to what you put into it. If you organization can’t devote at least a few hours a week to its social media presence, then you’re likely to get only a limited return on your time and effort.
  • Does it interest you? If you don’t enjoy something, you’re likely to avoid it. The same holds true for your social media marketing strategy. If you’re not interested in connecting with your business’s audience via social media, you’re not likely to generate much interest in what you have to say.
  • Do you want more business? The answer may seem obvious, but if you’re already doing well, it’s important to consider whether social media will make you more successful or take time and resources away from strategies better suited to your business.
  • Can you handle more business? If you deploy social media to make the phone ring more often, make sure you can answer the phone.

2. If you’re new to social media, don’t jump in right away—watch and learn. Social media sites seem easy to use, but developing effective social media strategies for your business is significantly more difficult. The best way to learn is to watch what others are doing—especially companies like yours, in your community and your industry. Great case studies are easy to find on the web, and you can save a lot of effort by reading about what’s worked for others—and what hasn’t—before you begin.

3. Decide what niche you’ll focus on, which tools you’ll use, and how much time you’ll devote to social networking for business. In today’s communication environment, if you try to be all things to all people, you won’t be anything to anyone. And when it comes to social media, you can’t do it all. It’s important, then, to decide what you want to be known for, among whom, and which tools are most likely to connect you with the right audience. Facebook, for example, might work for some businesses, but it’s certainly not right for everyone. And even if you decide to start a Facebook page, it’s vital to send a consistent, differentiated message. The key to success is giving your audience something they can’t get anywhere else, and communicating in a place where you’re most likely to reach the right people. Once you know where you need to be and what you need to say, estimate how much time you’ll devote to the effort. That will help you decide whether you’re using your time effectively.

4. Decide whether you’ll do it yourself or partner with a consultant/vendor. The most common misconception about social media is how much time you have to spend on your presence. In fact, when someone asks me how much time they should expect to spend on their social media presence, I usually say: “More than you think.” Tools like CoTweet, Seesmic, and TweetDeck can help you be more efficient, but they won’t do all the work for you. That’s why your organization needs to carefully consider whether it has the manpower to execute your strategy, or if it’s better to outsource your efforts. The former allows you to be more agile and more authentic; the latter allows you to get more done. Outsourcing still requires some of your time since you’ll have to train them and respond to questions from the audience they can’t answer, but it may be the right solution given your organization’s size and structure.

5. Establish personal/organizational policies and protocols. It’s not enough to simply know how your organization will use social media; you have to write it down. Your organization needs two different documents to guide its social media efforts:

  • An externally-focused protocol focused on how you’ll engage with your audience. This should focus on who’s responsible for content, the rules of engagement, transparency, and moderation of audience comments.
  • An internally-focused policy that sets expectations for employee use of social media. This is a human resources policy, and it should be developed by HR and your legal/compliance staff. It’s vital that you tell employees what’s expected of them—especially if your organization encourages social media among some employees, but not others.

6. Decide how you’ll measure ROI. Another misconception about social media is that it’s free. And while there’s no cost to register on most sites, any serious social media strategy involves a significant outlay of your organization’s time and resources. With that in mind, you should know what you hope to get in return. This should rarely—if ever—be a set number of friends/followers. Think quality over quantity. Do you want more web traffic? Increased inquiries/sales? Media coverage? Improved ratings on opinion sites? Fewer support calls/more self service? Social media can deliver all of these things, but you’ll get better results if you focus on one or two key metrics.

7. Have a strategy—and incorporate it into your larger marketing/communication strategy. Social media may be new to your organization, but it’s truly an extension of our larger communication continuum. As such, don’t think of it as being separate from the tools you’re currently using. It may replace some of the strategies you’ve used to reach your audience in the past, but it won’t likely replace all of them. Integrating social media with your overall marketing/communication strategy will ensure that have frequent opportunities to connect.

Once you’ve considered all these questions, then it’s time to get started. While social media as a whole is here to stay, individual tools and sites are constantly evolving. It’s never too late to begin, but the sooner you start the more likely it is that you’ll be able to enhance relationships with your audience over time and be ready to adapt as things change. Your customers are already using social media, as are many of your competitors. Now it’s your turn.

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One Response to Getting Started with Social Media

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