Small Business Social Media Survival Guide

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Claim Your Brand on the Social Web

Whether you're starting a new company or just looking to expand your existing brand, you need a presence on the social Web. Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites now play an integral role in the marketplace, connecting businesses with customers, partners, and industries at large. In this simple guide, I'll show you how to quickly establish your social presence and get more out of any social media efforts you may already be making.

It's hard to imagine starting a new company today without beginning with a Web presence, so let's assume you've already registered a domain name for your company (as in www.mycompany.com) and that you already have at least a basic site for your business. From this foundation, it's relatively easy to build a virtuous circle of social interaction that taps into the massive audiences of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other sites.

Develop A Message

It doesn't really matter whether you're a plumber, a building contractor, a restaurateur, or a marketing consultant. No matter what business you're in, you almost certainly have some expertise that people can benefit from. The key to success on the social Web is to offer that expertise in a way that provides real value to your potential followers.

Don't just think, "I need to tell people about my company so they'll come give me their money." It won't work. Instead, consider what skills and knowledge you want people to associate with your brand, and offer a taste in the form of helpful posts that are easy to find. Value begets a following. An endless stream of shameless plugs for your business likely won't.

Even if you're running a one-person plumbing service or a brake repair shop, you have valuable knowledge to share with people on the Web. Share it proudly, and people will find you. And when your followers find themselves in need of your services, you'll be the first name on their minds.

Blogs (Yes, They're Still Relevant)

WordPress Blog
Various research polls have suggested that blogs are dead. But for longer-form content on a focused topic, they can offer your site's visitors a depth of value that a Facebook page or a Twitter account just can't. A blog with a healthy collection of posts on one topic--say, plumbing or brake repair--can help your site rank in Google search results alongside the sites of your larger competitors, giving you visibility you otherwise might never have hoped for.

Launching a blog is fairly easy, and generally doesn't require the services of a professional Web developer. So unless you're deeply terrified by the prospect of tweaking your site a little, it's well worth giving it a go on your own. Most of the major Web hosting companies now feature simple control panel interfaces that can install a blogging system for you automatically. Many offer a choice of blogging systems, such as WordPress or Drupal. My personal favorite is WordPress, because it supports a massive ecosystem of cool plug-ins and design themes to help you customize your site.

If your company's site is simple and static, showing little more than a picture of your storefront and a paragraph or two about your services, I'd suggest scrapping it and making your blog your front page. With a simple two-column layout, you can make sure your company's vitals appear on every page of the site, so you're not sacrificing the vital information at all.

If your site is a little more complex, it's easy enough to make the blog an addition to what you've already got. Just install the blogging system in a separate folder (I recommend calling it ‘/blog') and add a prominent link to it on the other pages of your site.

Once your blog is up, you can easily integrate plug-ins and widgets that connect it to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, or whatever other social sites you want to use.

The main focus here should be content. Establish a posting schedule and stick to it. If it's once a week, fine. Just make sure that when people come to your site, they don't find an abandoned blog that you've been neglecting for the last two months.

You want people to come and find informative posts that they'll bookmark for later. If you're a landscaping contractor, think about sharing the little tricks of the trade that anyone can learn and use in their own yards. Inspire your visitors by posting photos of your coolest work. Show off a little. Use your blog as a showcase for what your company can do, and share a little knowledge about how you do it. You don't have to give away proprietary information to be interesting, but if you can reward your visitors with a little education and entertainment, you'll be building real affinity with your brand.

Twitter

Once you've started your blog and posted some cool stuff, the easiest place to share it is Twitter. For its users, Twitter's constant stream of short posts is the closest thing to crack on the Net. And better still, it requires minimal time and effort on your part.

Twitter
It takes all of a minute to create a Twitter account. Just go to twitter.com and click Sign Up. Enter your name or your company's name in the Full Name field, and then pick a username, which should be as close as possible to your company's name. As with every other popular Web service, you may find that your first choice of username is already taken by someone else. Get a little creative, but not overly so. If your company is Bill's Electric and @billselectric is already taken, try @ElectricWilliam or something similar. By no means should you accept @billselectric3417.

It's important to keep your username short. A long username will work against you when people retweet your messages.

If you already have a Twitter account that's not under your brand name and you have a healthy number of followers, consider changing your username to your brand name. You can do this in the Settings menu, and it won't disrupt your existing account in any way.

To build your following on Twitter, start following people you find interesting. Start with people in your own industry and related fields. After all, they've already demonstrated an interest in content similar to yours, and they probably already have followings that would be interested in the stuff you're going to be tweeting about. Don't spam them. Just follow them, interact with them, and retweet the things that you find interesting. If you're genuine, people will notice and your following will grow.

Under no circumstance should you give in to the temptation to use any service that promises to grow your following by automatically following people or other similar shenanigans. It may seem to work, but you'll almost certainly end up following a few thousand people you have nothing in common with, and who don't care about your message. Let your following grow organically, even if the pace is slower than you'd like. A few dozen followers who actually care about what you have to say will be a lot more valuable to your business than 10,000 followers who don't.

Once you've got a little following going, however small, use your platform to promote special offers for your followers. Small discounts and added extras can entice users to ring you up. But don't overdo the promotional stuff: Always, always, always make valuable, useful content the core of your social strategy.

Next page: Claiming your brand on Facebook and YouTube...

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