Once dominated by Facebook to connect with family, friends and customers across the miles – or down the street – social media has exploded to include Foursquare, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Spring.me, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter, Vine, WhatsApp and a dizzying number of other applications. Each channel has its own demographic of users with whom today’s small businesses can connect, engage and convert to loyal customers.
Today, social media “is one of the biggest opportunities that companies across industries have to connect directly to consumers,” states Sean Casey, president of Nielsen Social. “And it turns out that social media users can be pretty receptive – especially heavy users, who spend over three hours per day on social media.”
Focus on Doing a Few Things Well
“I advise clients to have a presence on a few of the major platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, so users can find the brands on their preferred channel,” says Joanna Nettelfield, account director of digital and social strategy for MWWPR of Rutherford. “That said, not every platform is right for every brand: Companies need to be very strategic when launching a social media presence by researching the channels in which their target audiences are most active.”
Nettelfield recommends that small businesses focus their energy on doing a few things well, instead of tackling everything that existing and new platforms have to offer.
As social media increasingly competes head-on with traditional forms of advertising, such as print and broadcast, it’s still a pay-for-play world, notes Nettelfield. “It’s important to remember that successful social campaigns require a notable investment to ensure that content effectively serves both existing and new potential consumers.”
For example, in addition to dedicated social media teams that create and release targeted content, companies need to invest in measuring the outcome of these efforts.
Strategy, Structure and Due Diligence
Using social media is an effective way to stay in front of target audiences continuously while developing deeper relationships. To build these bonds, a small business needs to thoroughly engage its audiences – because involvement equals commitment.
According to Jeffrey Barnhart, founder, CEO and president of Creative Marketing Alliance (CMA) of Princeton Junction, this engagement begins with a compelling social media marketing and content strategy that follows at least one of three themes that most people seek: Entertainment, Education and Empowerment, with “how-to” business tips that position the company as a solution provider.
“The difference between ‘social media’ and ‘social media marketing’ is strategy, structure and due diligence that, when combined, go beyond vanity metrics like followers and impressions, and drives prospects deeper down the sales funnel,” Barnhart states.
He provides an outline of how companies can fuse strategy, structure and due diligence to create true social media marketing.
“First, create a strategy for your online brand, which is a story that makes a promise. All aspects of your communications strategy should dovetail from this overall business strategy,” says Barnhart. “Develop a handful of key messages that capture the essence of your brand. For example, what does your company really do? What makes it different from the rest? What do you believe? Then, promote your brand story – and be consistent.
“Next, find your ‘allies’ or future brand advocates who appeal to your target audiences, but are not your competition. Research hashtags, keywords and trending news to reveal these allies,” he advises. “Then create compelling and diverse content that attracts your target audiences. You may be posting links, photos and videos, questions that encourage interaction or quotations to make them think.”
The final step of social media marketing is analytics, “because if you can’t measure, then you can’t manage,” asserts Barnhart.
Time: The No. 1 Resource
Even with software packages that automatically mine and analyze content to reveal coverage, perception, competition, sentiment and more, “the No. 1 resource required for an effective campaign is time,” notes Jim Mahlmann, managing partner of Netcetra, a marketing agency in Toms River. Small businesses must be ready to devote that time, which is “so worthwhile, since social media marketing, when done correctly, is one of the most powerful ways to communicate with clients and prospects.”
Compared to large-scale companies, smaller businesses often are more effective at timely posts and responses, Mahlmann concludes. He explains that many large companies are delayed when posting and responding because they have extensive schedules and processes that must be coordinated with creative departments and social media teams.
Prompt Responses are Key
A powerhouse employer committed to social media customer service and engagement, NJM Insurance Group is dedicated to responding promptly to customers across Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and Google+, the primary sites on which the company maintains an active presence. “While social media can be a great way to connect with customers, it’s very important to have protocols in place that ensure a prompt reply,” advises Amy Decker, NJM’s social media supervisor. “A quick response, even if it’s to say you’ll be in touch the next business day, goes a long way to reassure customers that you’re there to help.”
Decker’s department works closely with NJM’s communications group to assure effective messaging that’s reinforced both online and offline. Her team also manages a variety of social display ads for marketing to further draw the online community to the company’s social media pages and website.
Information shared across social media focuses on NJM products and services, with few sales pitches. “After all, that’s not why our customers are following us,” Decker states.
Legalities of Social Media in the Workplace
As the use of social media explodes across the small business landscape, many employers are unprepared for the legal implications of its use, especially in the workplace.
Attorney Kristine Feher is a shareholder in Greenberg Traurig’s labor and employment practice in New Jersey. She shares four of many areas employers should note as they engage in social media.
- Recruitment and research of potential applicants. Employers who use social media to research potential employees should ensure that such research is performed by human resources professionals who are trained on what information can properly be considered, and can filter the information that is shared with hiring managers.
- Employees’ use of social media. Employees may spend personal time on social media at work, which could include inappropriate comments and pictures, or the disclosure of confidential trade secrets or business information of the employer or its clients, either intentionally or accidentally. For these reasons and a host of others, employers should adopt and maintain policies regarding social media use which address these issues (yet not conflict with the National Labor Relations Act).
- Account ownership. Employers need to create policies and agreements which govern control and ownership of company accounts.
- After-hours compensation. If a marketing assistant tweets or posts for work from her living room couch on a Saturday night, the time spent doing that is probably compensable work time, which must be tracked and paid.
In the current environment, it is difficult for any business to succeed without leveraging the Internet, including social media. “However, businesses need to be mindful of the legal pitfalls before they jump into the on-line jungle,” Feher states. “Carefully thought-out policies and practices will help minimize the risks and maximize the benefits of social media for small as well as large-scale employers.”