The importance of social media in business has gone well past the point of debate: You simply have to be involved. The alternative would be like going to an exhibition that every one of your competitors attends, and sitting in the car park.
So whether it’s “your thing” or not, participation is mandatory. Most people taking their first step into a new business today understand this, but given the huge number of different social networking sites around, you might miss valuable opportunities or fail to take full advantage.
So let’s see if we can prevent that from happening with a few basic suggestions.
The business imperative
For the entrepreneur, the value of social media is not in making lots of friends. Your network of business acquaintances may eventually grow to become a tool of tremendous commercial and personal value, but it’s not what you’re out there for.
What you’re actually out there for is to put your product or service in front of as many people as possible, and in the best light possible. A mercenary approach? Absolutely.
But what other reason is there for giving it your time? To make you popular? That’s nice, but the world is already full of popular people who are also broke. Your business should have a presence on social networks so you can disseminate information and respond to your customers. Use social media to showcase your work, develop your brand, and support your customers. There are many different tactics, but they’re all business builders.
For that reason, any social media related to your business must be entirely separate from your “other life.” Your friends might be amused by a photo showing you doing something silly after having one too many last weekend, but it’s the last thing you want associated with your business persona.
Be social, but also be picky
Back when Mark was just a twinkle in Mr. Zuckerberg senior’s eye, a lawyer friend of mine used to leave business cards all over the place: at the auto shop, at restaurants, in the shopping mall, the cinema. He figured that someone, somewhere, might come across one and have need of his services. You could try a similar approach with social networks, but given the huge number, it’s not really practical.
So you need to pick the big ones and check whether there are any industry-specific ones that are appropriate: namely, sites where your competitors appear. Most companies should establish a presence on Facebook and LinkedIn, but other social networks, like LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Instagram, can be strategic depending on your industry.
Google+ is becoming increasingly popular and also important for search visibility. It’s also becoming a preferred option, along with Twitter, for offering support services. Hostgator is an example of a brand that has done an excellent job in this regard, using its Google+ profile.
Some popular sites you might want to give a miss, though, for the same reason that our lawyer probably wouldn’t go dropping cards at a soup kitchen. Pinterest, while very popular, may not offer specific benefits unless your product is very visually-appealing (such as food or fashion). You have limited time and resources, so you need to focus on making the most of each.
It’s a web, but make sure you sit at the center
Your network can quickly reach out through a variety of properties: some purely social, some more business-specific. It’s tempting to think you might be able to go without a website of your at all, but that would be a mistake.
Relying on external sites is known as “digital sharecropping” and it leaves you vulnerable. Changes in popularity, policy, or site ownership — all out of your control — could do serious damage to your income. At the center of it all, it’s absolutely vital that you have your own Internet presence. External websites come and go. You might think Facebook has grown so big it will be there forever. That’s exactly what millions of people thought about Myspace not very long ago, and whatever happened to Google Buzz? You can’t get much more influential and powerful backing, and yet ….
Like many online professionals, I’m a huge advocate of developing your core online presence using a self-hosted WordPress site (for which I also recommend WordPress-specific hosting). It’s an extremely popular platform, for good reason.
It’s quick and easy to create and manage your site and you can almost certainly do it without the expense of a webmaster. There are tens of thousands of themes (templates) and plugins, which should enable you to do anything from run a blog (and you should) to set up a complete online retail operation.
It’s a conversation … so converse!
Several popular sites, such as LinkedIn and Pinterest, don’t demand particularly high levels of attention. Others, like Facebook and Twitter, require more active involvement. They’re called “social” for a reason: If you start a conversation, you have to be prepared to carry it on. If you don’t, potential customers will think either you’re inattentive or you don’t value their input. So, there’s an unavoidable time overhead with social media which occasionally can seem onerous. But you know what; running your own business is like that sometimes!
There’s an old adage that remains true: You don’t have to like the rules, but you’d better make sure you understand them.