By now, everyone in the small business world has probably realized the importance of social media in their marketing strategy.  Because most of the effective social marketing tools are free to use, many business owners tend to put less value on them in their overall marketing plan.  Social media can help your business thrive, but it does take a time investment to do it right.  Here are five tips for small businesses to maximize success using social media.

1. Have a plan

As with any other part of your marketing strategy, social media will take some effort.  Many businesses are attracted to all of the buzz surrounding social media, but in practice, there is little if any follow-thru on the things they set out to do.  Set goals for your business’ online persona.  Where do you want to be in 3, 6, and 12 months? Are you trying to make connections directly to potential customers, or are you trying to enhance word of mouth style marketing with an online presence?  List out your goals according to priority and come up with a timeline.  It’s much easier to see the wheels in motion if you know where you want to end up.

2. Have a schedule

When first starting out, it is common for the owner of a small business to handle social media personally.  This is a great luxury if you can afford it, because no one knows what you want the voice of your business to be better than you.  However, it’s important to keep in mind that effective social media marketing requires a substantial time commitment.  Make sure that you set aside specific time each day to attend to your evolving online brand.

3.  Start small

One common mistake that small business owners tend to make regarding social media is spreading themselves too thin.  Facebook and Twitter are a good place to start for any business trying to gain a digital foothold.  You are probably already using one or both of them for your personal life, so making the jump to business won’t be too difficult.  Employing other networks can be useful too, but it’s better not to try to do it all at once because, again, this will take some personal time investment.  The more online profiles you are managing in different networks, the more time consuming it gets.

4.  Engage the right way

When you get everything set up, you can start to engage your customers directly.  It’s important that a business uses social media as a conversation rather than a broadcast.  If your Facebook page just spouts deals and advertisements without any real interaction; you’ve missed the point entirely.  When you talk to a person face to face and develop a relationship, they are much more likely to become a loyal customer.  Social media just gives you a bigger mouthpiece for that same type of action.  This is not to say that you can never tell people about specials or sales on social media; just that it can’t be the only thing you ever say.  The most successful social media strategies are ones where businesses are willing to engage in real conversation with customers directly.

5. Drive the conversation

One of the most effective tools for any business using social media is driving the conversation with their own content.  If you are always putting out interesting content, you are more likely to be able to steer the online conversation the way you want it.  More importantly, if you are routinely driving the conversation to align with your business’ strengths, you have the opportunity to become a “thought leader” in your field.  When customers actively look for a business’ updates and favorite them, share them, or even add their profile to lists and group, the company achieves “thought leader” status.  This is sort of the holy grail of social media marketing because if your customers see your business as the authority in a particular field, you will virtually control that market.

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