Small business and social networking were made for each other. Social networks give businesses a means to communicate directly with their customers in a way that was never possible before.
But it can also be confusing. A new network or tool, it seems, springs up every week. How can a small business owner decide which network is right for his business to reach its customers? The answer, as I see it, is rooted less in modern technology, but primarily in traditional communication theory. I like to think of it in 7 basic parts:
1. Know your audience. This may sound like a redundant statement of fact, but anyone who has actually spent some time trying to identify their target audience knows how deceiving that appearance can be. PR practitioners are taught that targeting an audience is a four-part process:
The first step is to identify your entire global audience; next, that audience is segmented into manageable subsets; those subsets all are profiled; then, finally, based on those profiles each subset is ranked.
Based on that ranking you can determine the audience or audiences you need to target and begin the planning process. The most important thing to remember, though, is that audiences change. A small business always has to follow the changing trends among its customers.
2. Know your goal(s). The first step in any plan is to set yourself realistic, measurable goals. Only by first knowing what they are and understanding how social media fits into them can you choose a network that suits you and your business.
3. Craft your message. For the same reason that you must know and understand your goals ahead of time, you must also have crafted your message or messages before choosing a network.
For instance, if your message is a little more complex or requires a lot of video or graphics to make its point, Twitter is probably not your first option. Having that message precrafted and understanding how it fits in to the previous two steps will enable you to make quick, informed judgments on what network to use and when.
4. Know your social media options. In the same way that you must understand your target audience, you must also understand the tools at your disposal. Never assume that you already know all you need to about all social networks just because you understand one or two. The options are almost as numerous and disparate as the audiences discussed above. Twitter and Facebook are currently the big two, but they are very different than LinkedIn, YouTube, Google+ and all the others.
And like your audience, social media is always changing. Understanding it means constantly studying it.
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5. There is no one correct answer. Once you have taken the previous steps, you should have a much clearer idea which social network will serve you best. However, it bears stating that there is never one “right” way to reach an audience. You may do dozens of hours of research and still come to the conclusion that you need to utilize more than one social network to reach your target group or deliver the desired message. Rare is the occasion where your goal can be reached in its entirety simply by using just Facebook (or Twitter, Google+, etc.). Limiting yourself to just one social network is just that – limiting. Using more than one network may end up being more work, but you didn’t decide to start a small business to shy away from work. If it’s necessary, do it.
6. Always be researching. Even if just informally you should always be doing some kind of market research. Simply asking your customers, “so did you see our big Facebook announcement?” or something of the like can give you valuable information as to whether your efforts are having an effect. If the customer responds to that question with a blank stare then maybe, so far, your social media strategy has been ineffective in reaching the people you wanted.
Which leads me to my last piece of advice…
7. Be adaptable. Even the best-laid plan is not perfect. Since communication is a process, you may learn that what you are doing is not as effective as it could be. Do not think that, just because you have tried one avenue you are committed to it. For all the reasons discussed above, a social media strategy is always in a state of flux. Don’t be afraid to change your channel to match changes in your audience or message.
The wonderful thing about social media is that it frequently requires very little financial investment, only time and dedication.
That’s how I see it, anyway. What about you? Did I leave anything out? What steps have you found useful in identifying social media tools for your small business?