Social media is transforming how many small businesses promote themselves, attract customers, build customer loyalty and even enter new markets. Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn provide huge marketing opportunities for business owners, but also some risks that need to be managed. 

No longer does a business have to rely on traditional media to get its message out. Now it has its own channels to connect and interact with customers and potential customers.

Media habits have changed rapidly. Newspaper readership has fallen dramatically. Over two million Irish people use smartphones, and social media apps are hugely popular on those devices.

Main channels

There are a huge number of social media channels that businesses can use.  Here are the main ones:

  • Facebook: This is the biggest social media channel. If your business is B2C, this is the channel you need to put most of your energies into. You need to set up a Facebook page and post interesting content that will be shared. Photos and video content work particularly well on Facebook. Avoid the trap of being overly-promotional. Instead, try to amuse, engage and spark discussion and debate. Facebook also has an analytics tool to track your performance.
  • Twitter: A fast-moving, newsfeed-style social media channel, Twitter gives you the opportunity to ‘follow’ people and businesses, and interact with tweets, within a 140-character limit. You can use links to attach video content or images. Twitter is used by businesses with both a B2C and B2B focus.
  • LinkedIn: LinkedIn is primarily a B2B social media channel, allowing you to ‘connect’ with professionals and businesses, and also lets you post content. This is a particularly resourceful channel if you are looking to hire staff.
  • Instagram/Pinterest: These channels are image-based, and give your business a chance to express its values and brand well. Your followers will be able to comment on pictures and videos that you post.
  • Tumblr/Reddit: These channels are more niche, but could be effective for your business. Tumblr allows you to create a form of blog, through which you can post all kinds of content, while Reddit is a huge online forum and the self-proclaimed “front page of the internet”. 

Business benefits

So, what areas of your business will gain from your social media presence? Research has shown that social media activity can boost three parts of your business to varying degrees:

  • Marketing and communications: This is a given, considering social media gives you a platform to market and showcase your brand, and communicate with both established and prospective customers.
  • Customer acquisition and loyalty: You have the opportunity to reach out and engage with a mass audience, or a niche audience, through social media. What works? Being courteous and funny, promoting special deals or promotions, posting shareable content and also showing that you are different to bigger businesses and your competitors.
  • Sales: The jury is out on whether social media activity is a sales channel, but there is no doubt that social media does support businesses’ sales efforts.

Skills needed

Some business owners feel a bit pressurised to be active of social media, and have a fear that they will be considered old-fashioned if they’re not regularly posting on Facebook or Twitter. The reality is that some people are better suited to social media than others, and also that some businesses have more to gain from social media than others.

Individuals who are PR savvy, can write well and can build social media into their everyday activities will do well on the platforms. But not every business owner is like that, and it can be difficult, if not impossible, to expect them to change lifelong habits and improve their written skills. That doesn’t mean to say that you shouldn’t engage on social media, but it may lead you to decide to allow a trusted staff member to manage your accounts.

Getting started

With so many channels on which to engage, it can be tempting to just jump in and post content straight away, spreading yourself thinly across too many channels.

Here are six social media steps you should take:

  • Develop a plan: Choose your channels wisely. Focus on the channel where your audiences already are. Check out the competition and businesses you’d like to emulate. Identify who will run your accounts.
  • Establish an account: Just because you set up a social media account doesn’t mean you have to post content immediately.   
  • Lurk: You will only gain a proper understanding of social media by observing the behaviour and habits of users on a day-to-day basis. Follow people and observe what they are doing and what they’re talking about. Identify best practices, and social media do’s and don’ts.
  • Upskill: Know your social media channels well. Understand what you can post and how you can do it. Upskilling will save you time, effort and your blushes later on.
  • Network: Connect with people and businesses that you feel will be attracted to your business. Follow sector leaders and influential social media users. Start engaging.
  • Put your plan into action: Get to work on social media. Post content, engage with customers, offer social media-specific deals and, above all, have fun. Brands with the right mix of customer loyalty and humour do well on social media

Return on investment

While it costs nothing to establish a social media account, you need to invest time and also possibly money in developing your presence. Social media companies are businesses, and advertising is part of their business model. To get reach for your business on a channel like Facebook, you may have to put money into advertising 

You will need to decide if this investment of time and money is delivering the required return on investment. You should try to measure that, through increased footfall in your shop (on foot of a Facebook promotion, perhaps) or through the use of analytics packages that you can use.

Risks

Social media is not without risks. Customers often take to social media to vent their anger with businesses and brands, and particularly to draw attention to poor customer service. 

Businesses are realising that they are no longer in control of their brands, largely through the power of social media. Large businesses have seen their share prices plummet on the back of viral negative stories that have been shared through social media.

So how do you avoid risks?  Here are some tips:

  • Put social media accounts in the right hands: Just because it is a ‘new’ form of engaging doesn’t mean you should hand over control to the most junior member of staff. Your social media accounts will be the face of your business, so ensure that you or an experienced, trusted member of staff are in charge.
  • Be careful how you respond to negative posts: Your inclination might be to be defensive or to dismiss the criticisms. But such an approach can do real damage to your business.
  • Offer a quick and genuine apology: If a customer does experience poor service and shares it on Facebook or Twitter, accept the criticism and apologise.
  • Always give the customer the last word: You can’t please everyone. But what you can do is be courteous and show empathy on social media.