Today's small-business owner needs to use every available tool to drive sales, and that includes social media.
Social media is word-of-mouth on a whole new level, and businesses of all sizes need to be accessible online. However, you have to make sure to do it right.
"It's better not to participate in social media than to participate but do a terrible job," says Jenny Stephenson, a social networking specialist at Paramore Redd Online Marketing in Nashville, Tenn.
Following are four tips for using this technology to build awareness of your brand.
Create a strategySocial media is like every other marketing tool -- you need a strategy.
You should know what you want to accomplish, where your target audience is and where you plan to reach them, says Sarah Evans, a new media consultant and owner of Sevans Strategy in Chicago.
Some forms of social media may be more effective at reaching customers than others. Stephenson says she almost always suggests Facebook and Twitter to businesses.
"I consider Facebook the hub of all social media," Stephenson says. "It's the most visited and active social network alive. Twitter is similar to a mini-blog. Use Twitter to drive traffic to your website and other social media accounts."
Build relationshipsSocial media can help businesses build up trust with consumers, Stephenson says.
"It gives the consumer a place to talk back," she says. "If you have a great online relationship with your consumers, then they will always think of you first when they are thinking about something they need in your industry. If they trust, understand and know you, then they will buy from you."
Engage your customers on a personal level and give them incentives. For example, offer coupons or special discounts for responding to a specific comment on Twitter, Stephenson says.
"Social media is about creating a conversation about your brand," she says. "If while you converse, you happen to convince people to buy from you, then you have done exactly what you wanted."
Deliver great contentContent is king when it comes to social media. According to Evans, information sent out to consumers should be timely and relevant.
It's also important to reach customers wherever they use social media. For example, consumers access data 24/7 via cell phones. If they can't access your information easily via mobile, they probably aren't going to find your business, Evans says.
Remember to keep content professional and to avoid mistakes. Once content is out there, it's out there.
Always post to strengthen your brand -- speak about philanthropic efforts and other activities to increase a customer's affinity for your business.
Be consistent and follow throughUse your social media platforms consistently, and keep pushing ahead after you've started, Stephenson says.
"Social media is not something you can start and then forget about," she says. "You have made a commitment to your customers, and you need to follow through with them. If you don't, then your brand looks less credible."
Be consistent in branding as well. Branding should be the same across the board, says Joe Mandrino, a market research specialist who works in Chicago.
"Consumers are bombarded with millions of messages and advertisements," he says. "A shared look between advertising efforts keeps the message clear and breaks through the clutter."
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