My column in the Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly Small Business Success Guide: Making social media work for you

Many small business owners find it difficult to strike a balance between using social media well enough to connect with their customers while not doing so at the expense of other priorities. My column in the 2011 Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly Small Business Success Guide is designed to help people make sense of what’s enough, but not too much. I’d like to hear from any small business owners out there: how do you respond to this challenge? How are you manging the need to be available via social media without neglecting other important aspects of your business? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Making social media work for you

These days, you may be overwhelmed by everyone telling you about the latest social media site or tool that you “have to” try. “You need a Facebook page!” they may say. Or, “I can’t believe you’re not on Twitter!” Or maybe they’re shocked you’re not using, or even aware of, a social media site you’ve never even heard of.

For small business owners, this can lead to a major dilemma: Do you ignore these comments and risk missing out on the “next big thing,” or do you listen to what’s being said and face the even greater risk of spending time on strategies that may prove to have limited value?

The truth, as it usually is, is somewhere in the middle. It’s important to understand new trends that are shaping your customers’ expectations, but it’s also crucial that you don’t spread yourself so thin that you neglect your core business objectives.

When small business owners ask me which social media tools they should be using, my first response is to ask questions. There is no template, no blueprint, no sure-fire road to social media success. Every business is unique, and crafting a social media strategy demands an understanding of the organization’s unique objectives, audiences and resources. Making social media work for your business begins with an understanding of this and a few additional core principles that will guide you toward decisions better aligned with your goals and your needs.

First, understand that social media is not a fad. The fact that social media tools come and go — you may remember when MySpace was the “next big thing,” for example — leads some people to believe that social media is a passing trend. However, social media as a whole is not new, and it’s not going away. Ignoring this fact is certain to put your business — regardless of what industry you’re in — at risk.

If nothing else, it’s vital that you take social media seriously, if for no other reason than understanding how it’s changing your customers’ perceptions. In a world where they can connect with major corporations at any time, from just about anywhere, they are becoming increasingly conditioned to expect to be able to connect with you — on their terms.

Second, don’t follow the crowd. While it’s true that social media is very much for real, that does not mean you have to have a presence on every site and in every community. First, doing so is impossible. As a small business, you don’t have the resources to do it all. In addition, it’s much better to do a few things right than to try do several things at once, only to end up doing them poorly.

The key is to start small. Identify your one most important business objective and your one most important audience. If you’re a retailer and you want to build relationships with your existing customers, location-based social media may be the right answer. If you’re a financial planner and you way to achieve top-of-mind awareness in your niche, a blog might be the best way to tell your story.

Perhaps you’re a personal trainer and you want to show how you transform people from flabby to fit, but you can’t devote hours a day to your social media efforts. Maybe a Flickr page is the best place to begin showcasing the results you deliver for your clients (with their consent, of course). If you begin with one thing, and focus on just that, you’ll be much more likely to succeed than if you fragment your efforts.

Third, understand that social media is not free. One of the biggest myths about social media is that it’s free. Sure, it costs you nothing to start a Facebook page, or YouTube channel, or a LinkedIn profile, but starting a presence isn’t as important as maintaining it and committing to making it sustainable. Doing that work will either take time — yours or someone else’s at your company — or money if you choose to hire it out.

Like anything else you’ve invested in to grow your business, the results are generally contingent upon what you put into it. If you’re only willing to spend $0, guess what kind of return you should expect? There’s good news in this, however: Understanding that social media comes with a cost will motivate you to make better decisions. The next time someone tells you what you “have to” do, you’ll know you’ll only “have to” if it makes sense for your business.

For small businesses, the key is to strike a balance between embracing the opportunities that come with social media and avoiding the temptation to waste time and resources on the wrong things. Focus on what’s right for your audience and what’s likely to truly provide the best return on your investment, and you’ll be in a much better position to make the right decisions.

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