Social Media for Small Business – Get a Plan

One of the very cool things about social media is how it levels the playing field between the big corporations and small businesses. At least in theory it does, but in actual fact there are few small businesses that can afford the time and expense of creating a full on on-line community, track their brand, keep up a blog, post on the micro-blog services like Twitter and still have time to get any work done! Small businesses can certainly still compete in social media, the trick is to create your social media strategy carefully, using the resources that are truly available and not over-extending yourself or your staff. It’s critical that you don’t make commitments you can’t live up to our you’re out there with egg on your face and you don’t even know it because you don’t have time to track your brand.

To prevent that from happening, you need to give some thought to a few key elements before you jump in and start swimming.

Who’s going to do it?
For some companies the CEO is the one who engages in social media. Sometimes it’s the marketing person because they are the keeper of the official message. Sometimes it’s an engineer because they have both the passion and the knowledge of the product. Other times it’s a junior team member who is knowledgeable in social media but still learning about the company and products. The key here is, the person(s) doing the engagement is the best evangelist and also has the available time to commit to it every day. You can hire someone to build it for you, or to create a strategy, but in the long run it’s best if someone in the company is handed the reins after a relatively short period of time.

Create guidelines
Once you decide who will be participating you need to define the message they’ll be sending. Guidelines may seem like unnecessary work, but they can help you refine your message and identify who is really going to shine and who may need a little social media coaching. Most people are more comfortable operating when they know the ground rules. Make sure they understand the importance of professionalism. There are countless examples of company secrets revealed, company policies misrepresented, personal scandals revealed, or just plain unprofessional gaffes. All or most could have easily been avoided with a few guidelines. Don’t make them so constricting that they can’t breathe. Set the corporate message, voice and a list of don’ts’ that apply to your own business needs.

Find the right tools
Depending on what you do, how often you are able to regularly engage, your budget and your particular style you may want to put up forums, blogs, Facebook or MySpace pages, videos or micro-blogs like Twitter or may want to put up an online community where your users can help you out by creating content for you or a fan site. I’m not going to go in-depth into all the options here, but will do so in the coming posts in this series. I leave it at this. Don’t dive into a dozen social media applications all at once. Create a plan for which ones to use and which will be most effective to meet your goals.

Get strategic
Those first few posts can be exhilarating and disappointing at the same time. You may have worked pretty hard to set up a community or write the perfect introductory post, and then you wait for the accolades to roll in. In most cases this isn’t going to happen immediately. It’s a good idea to have a marketing strategy in place to let people know about your new presence. Tell your customers to follow you on Twitter, point them to the FaceBook page or offer video tutorials on your products through Seesmic or Vimeo and point users there from your web site. This kind of traffic takes a little time to build and then it will suddenly take off and–if properly managed–you’ll get the feedback you’ve been looking for!

Relax already
All this sounds like work, and it is, but once this work is done you can kick back and have fun with it. Sending out stuffy announcements and press releases is not going to engage people and get them to want more. Have fun with your posts, show your passion. Set up a series of themes, maybe even an editorial calendar to keep things rolling and the ideas flowing. Don’t sell. Inform, entertain and engage.

Speaking of engagement
Don’t just push out information and leave it at that. Social media is SOCIAL. You have to engage in order to create relationships. Find other blogs or networks in which you can participate. Answer questions or provide solutions and be part of the community. Just like face to face networking, if all you talk about is you, you, you, people will turn a deaf ear. Talk to them about themselves and their problems and you’re engaging.

Periodically take a step back and look at what you’ve been doing and the effect it has on your company. Do some brand tracking and look at your traffic stats before and after you start the campaign to see how it’s doing and where you need to do more or less. It’s natural for this kind of campaign to need tweaking now and again and to re-visit the guidelines as well as the strategy.