social-media marketing for small businessPromoting your business on social media can be helpful in extending your brand, gaining visibility, and building relationships with your customers. Done right, it can be an inexpensive way to market your company.

But too many times I see companies plastering up a Facebook page just because everybody else is doing it. Or, they shoot out a few tweets and after a few days or weeks give up because no one is paying attention.

Is social media the right tool for your business? Here are some guidelines to help you use social media as a strategic marketing tool:

1. Have a purpose. Like any other marketing strategy, social media should be a tool that helps you meet a goal. You wouldn’t just go out and start buying ads without knowing what you want to accomplish, so don’t do it with social media. It might not cost anything to start a Facebook page, but there is a cost in time and that’s also a valuable resource.

2. Don’t sell. Social media is social. People use it to relate to one another and just like you wouldn’t walk into a party and start pitching your wares, you shouldn’t hard-sell on social media, either. There are ways to get people talking about your products or services, but you have to tread softly or risk losing your audience.

3. Be prepared to invest time and effort into your social media marketing. You will need to understand your target audience and how best to approach them. You need to understand what interests them, and know what it is you have to say that is valuable to that audience. Don’t post or tweet just to do it – make sure you have something to say or you will quickly be dropped by your readers.

4. Understand social media and use it yourself. There is no better way to understand Yelp, Chime In, Twitter, etc. than to participate and use them regularly.

5. Tie your efforts together and integrate them with your overall marketing strategy. You should not be doing something completely different online than you are doing offline. Avoid the split personality – don’t try to be hip and cool online if you are a traditional, conservative business offline. You risk damaging your brand and alienating online audiences who can see right through that.

6. Keep up with the changes. New sites are emerging all the time. Auction sites, gaming sites, photo sharing and music sharing – they are all expanding their focus to include building communities. Some of those communities are bound to include potential customers.

7. If you don’t have time to do it yourself, find someone who can. Often companies have younger employees who are well versed in social media and could, with guidelines, represent the company. There are many agencies that will help you with this.

8. Have guidelines. This ties in with #1 because your guidelines will be driven by your purpose. Establish guidelines for anyone posting on behalf of the company about what they can and cannot say. If you don’t want to put pricing on social media, say so. Be clear about what employees can post on their personal sites, as well.

9. Monitor constantly. Many experts in the field recommend that you start your social media adventure by listening first. Find out what your customers and others might be saying about you online. Once you are active in social media, be sure to set up Google Alerts and other tracking to monitor what is being said.

10. React but don’t overreact. If you see something posted about your company online that you don’t like, feel free to respond. But don’t get overly emotional about it, and don’t fire back. Respond with basic facts and a real desire to solve the customer’s problems – that will gain you a lot of credibility from anyone else who sees the exchange. And remember, one complaint is just one complaint, so don’t overreact.

11. Enjoy it. This is a new way to engage your customers and draw in new customers. People of every age are participating in social media, from teenagers to grandmothers, and it is a growing part of our culture. As you bring your business into the discussion, you may find raving fans who will provide recommendations for you.

12. Online marketíng is a tool – it doesn’t replace your other marketing efforts. Sure, a lot of what used to be advertised in print media is now online. But there is still an important role for all of the other marketing tools including public relations, direct m@il and advertising. Like your toolbox, each tool has a different purpose and you wouldn’t use a hammer to sand wood. Online (or inbound) marketing is a great resource that is very cost effective for businesses, but it must be a part of the larger marketing strategy or it will fail.

By Kim Deppe (c) 2012