I wrote this article in October 2013 while pursuing my MFA in Creative & Professional Writing.
One thing I’ve encountered countless times while working for a marketing and advertising agency in the mid-2000s was that small businesses, non-profits, and self-employed individuals had a lack of knowledge when it came to self-promotion. It wasn’t uncommon to walk into a new client situation and view a history of bad advertisements, low-grade television spots, malfunctioning websites, and other underperforming efforts, usually self-produced by a family member with an interest in computers mid-way through their first year of college.
I understand the desire to save money, particularly for these small-scale entities and sole proprietors. Covering overhead month-to-month is critical. You do what you have to do. And I respect the DIY attitude – Do It Yourself for those who don’t know – as a hyperactive DIY streak courses through my circulatory system. I do know how to recognize, however, when I need the help of a pro, especially when it becomes an investment in the business. Chances are, the work a professional produces will outperform any low budget attempt and earn back the expenses at an exponential. The key is to continue the endeavor: a marketing campaign is only effective for as long as it lasts.
This is where social media comes in to play, as an affordable (free) DIY undertaking. Guidance by a professional marketer or advertiser will help if the funds are there to support it, but any small business or organization has full access to this broad medium.
Twitter was born during my final year at the agency. At that time, it wasn’t even a consideration as a marketing tool. If the term social media was coined by then, I don’t recall anyone ever using it. It certainly wasn’t part of the discussion at work beyond a colleague once telling me, “you haven’t heard about Twitter? You have to check it out!” Facebook was not available to the public yet, MySpace was enjoying its short-lived heyday, and LinkedIn was an up-and-coming professional networking tool. For the purposes of our clients, however, there didn’t appear to be anything in this realm worth investigating.
Fast forward six years, and I’ve spent that time working in a corporate position, managing corporate communication, and more recently transitioning to ecommerce. Social media has become a crucial medium in both disciplines. Even though I work in a corporate setting now, I still keep the small business mentality in perspective, it’s where I come from, after all, and I always want to see them succeed. And the first step in using social media to do this is to use it.
Whether we are talking about a two-person design agency, a local non-profit providing care for AIDS patients, or a freelance writer, building awareness is critical to developing new business. A web presence is standard for any business or organization that wants to be found. Not a yellow pages listing, not a classified ad in the local weekly paper, and definitely not an illegible paper sign taped to a lamppost at a busy intersection; an easy to find web presence is the norm. That’s how consumers look for services they require now, how they conduct competitive research, read first-hand customer reviews, and compare prices without leaving the couch. Consumers aren’t necessarily customers; they can be potential patients and students. And to use this to your advantage, you need to be easy to find.
Easy to find means having proliferated your web presence in various social media channels sharing interesting and insightful information relative to the services offered. More importantly, is your development of thought leadership, achieved over time and by example, through sharing knowledge and insightful information on blog posts, articles and other web media that establish a level of confidence and trust in the researching consumer. You want that potential customer to read or watch your content and feel they found exactly what they were looking for, and more.
Small organizations have a unique advantage in the realm of social media over larger corporate entities. Being small, the human factor is always prevalent. The individuals behind the business are not separated from the customer by automated phone services and faceless product websites. As a result, they are able to capitalize on their individual uniqueness made up of the services and the humans involved in providing them, not to mention local community involvement and level of volunteer commitment for the non-profits. These intrinsic human assets provide the strength and empathy required to build relationships with others who hold shared interests – as a provider or recipient – critical in developing a following to spread awareness and grow the business.
Regardless of what type of small entity I’m talking to, the rules are the same in social media. After a thorough presence has been established – an uncluttered website emphasizing your prowess, which can be achieved through a blog if you’d prefer – the second major step is relationship building. That is what social networking is all about, building relationships. There are several ways to do this; here are some I recommend based on my own experiences and successes:
- Join conversations. When you see a discussion topic on a social network, blog, or forum, join it. Offer your perspective rooted in your area of expertise. Be wary of offering opinions or statements you cannot back up, however, particularly in discussions with high emotions and sensitivity. Your goal is to win friends and influence others, to borrow from Dale Carnegie, not fall into arguments. Overall, maintain professionalism. And use your true identity with links back to your web presence. You’ll build credibility and potentially earn a few new followers.
- Share relevant and interesting information. Occasionally you will stumble across a current event that relates to your area of expertise – share it on all of your social networks. You will be surprised at how many in your audience (potential customers) appreciate reading articles they might not have otherwise encountered. This puts you in the know, you become a centralized resource for aggregating this information with a human touch, not an automated script sitting on someone’s web server delivering stories that match keywords.
- Insert yourself in the story. Take a page from marketing and public relations guru David Meerman Scott. In his eBook Newsjacking, Scott describes a marketing niche of inserting your perspective into a current news story. That is, you release an article, a blog post, or other communication that answers the situation at-hand in the current event, such as offering a free service to help the subject in need, or to immediately position yourself as the authority on the topic. Two important details cannot be overlooked: authenticity is a must, and timeliness is everything. The longer you wait – we’re talking minutes, maybe an hour – the sooner another will grab the opportunity before you can. It’s aggressive, but it can yield a ton of free publicity in the form of syndication by other blogs and the mainstream media, including follow-up interviews from reporters covering the event. As long as you are confident in handling what surprises come your way, newsjacking can open some major doors through social media at no cost.
- Be yourself. You are human. Your audience is human; they can detect the difference between authenticity and nonsense without much more than a gut feeling. Developing credibility in social media is a necessity in growing your business. Therefore, be honest and sincere, don’t exaggerate facts, and don’t speak in hyperbole. And don’t put on airs.
- Consistent activity is key. Setting a cadence in publishing content to your social networks and blog helps develop reader loyalty. Readers come to know your rhythm quickly, such as expecting to see a new blog every Sunday morning. There are automated tools that can help you maintain a publishing schedule, though I prefer to do it manually because it feels natural to allow some variance in the hour of day I publish. And that lets readers know I am actually performing the task, not automated software.
You cannot forget the operative word activity in this matter; there is nothing worse to a loyal audience than a social media account or blog that has unexpectedly become dormant for a long period of time. It implies you’ve lost interest, have nothing more to say, you’re out of business, or other more tragic matters. Should a business closure occur, keep your social media presence alive, continue building your reputation, and make sure your loyal audience knows where to find you after the business closes. And if you’ve decided to discontinue your blog, give your audience the courtesy of knowing.
- Silence is the worst kind of response. Since social media makes businesses directly accessible to customers, feedback is bound to occur. Whether positive or negative, you need to respond in a relatively short time. Sometimes a simple message of gratitude is all that’s necessary to let your customer know you are listening and care. The same applies when a customer voices a negative response – offer to help that customer resolve the situation by replacing the product or whatever remedy is most appropriate. An unhappy customer who receives argumentative or apathetic responses is likely to share that negative experience with his or her own network. And negativity has a tendency to spread much faster on the web than positivity, an unfortunate truth.
No matter what your profession is, the size of your business, or the role you play in it, all of these guidelines are applicable. Building and maintaining relationships with your potential and existing customers is now the standard method of doing business. Once you begin this endeavor it becomes a commitment, and a valuable piece of your business growth.
Lastly, have fun with it. The best kind of work is produced when you enjoy doing it. Post content you like to write about or read. Help others by answering questions and offering suggestions. The concepts of karma apply here, through basic humanity and goodwill. Social media is an organic process; it is as human as you make it.