More than 12 million Australians use Facebook. Twitter, on the other hand, has around two million active Australian users.
Meanwhile, as many as four out of five Australian professionals use the networking site LinkedIn to advertise their skills and connect with like-minded people.
Social media presents an unprecedented opportunity for businesses to amplify their content and interact with their target market. But with limited time and resources, small business owners are often afraid of starting – or even maintaining – a social media presence. While 65% of Australians use social media, only 30% of small businesses have jumped on the bandwagon.
SmartCompany spoke to a number of experts for their advice on how businesses can make the most out of Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.
1. Have realistic expectations
“It’s about having the right attitude and having a positive mind,” he said. “Business owners need to have realistic expectations about what can and cannot be done. And critically, social media isn’t a sales bulletin.”
Young says social media isn’t necessarily something that yields instant results, just like any other investment. However, if you do put the time and effort into building trust and meaningful relationships between your brand and audience, that will eventually generate sales.
Dionne Kasian-Lew, a social media strategist, agrees.
“Social media is about the long-term,” she said. “There are lots of immediate returns you can get from, say, Google AdWords – but social media is about building relationships. You need to invest the time and energy.”
Young says one way to get the most out of social media is to come up with a plan, just like you would for any other aspect of your business. That way your expectations are clear and you can refine them if necessary.
“You need to ask yourself: can I use this platform to reach and further enhance the relationship I have with my audience?”
2. Don’t talk about yourself the whole time
Social media can be intimidating for business owners because it’s often perceived as something new and required specialised knowledge.
Young says that, in part, this is true because what has worked previously for traditional advertising doesn’t work for social media. Rather than talk about yourself as you would in a television commercial, social media requires businesses to be exactly that: social.
“It’s counterintuitive to the way we’ve been taught to market our brand,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you don’t do the things that still work. All it does is amplify your enthusiasm and expertise.”
Social media was originally built for individuals to interact with other people. Young says this is where SMEs have a key advantage over larger corporations. It’s much easier to come across as human on social media if you’re known for being a small team rather than a large, faceless organisation.
Kasian-Lew likens social media to a dinner party: you are more likely to want to remember engage with someone who has something interesting to say rather than just talks about themself the whole time.
Cat Matson, chief executive of HEARIS, agrees. She says it’s important business owners remember social media isn’t a one-way conversation, but a multi-way one.
“As soon as you start engaging with people they expect a conversation,” she said. “Other people will jump in.”
3. Know your audience
All of the social media experts SmartCompany spoke to stressed the importance of businesses understanding their online audience.
For Kasian-Lew, social media is premised on trust and people having meaningful interactions online. Once businesses tap into that level of trust, their audience will start talking about their products and services all on their own.
“The recommendation of your friend is going to mean a lot more to you than someone’s external view,” she said. “Those conversations mean something because they translate into meaning and behaviours.”
Young says small businesses have an advantage on social media because they are likely to specialise in a certain area and therefore know who their audience is already.
“Your expertise, knowledge and experiences – these are powerful things to share on social media,” he said. “You’ll never lose by being real and helpful and fun. Think about the people who already know and like you and let them tell your story.”
Matson says she uses social media because there isn’t enough time in the world to sit down and have a coffee and chat with every interesting person she meets. In that sense, businesses should see social media as an opportunity to connect with engaged individuals.
“The brilliance in social media is the networking opportunities,” she said. “If you choose to endorse, support or comment, they’ll do the same for you and you’ll get greater momentum than if you chose to operate in a silo.”
4. Don’t treat all social media platforms the same
“Twitter is great if you want customer care, Facebook is great for products. It depends who you are and where your audience is.”
Choosing just one or two social media platforms rather than spreading yourself too thin can be a good idea for business owners. Good content can often be repurposed, saving you both time and money.
However, it’s crucial business owners understand that different platforms have different strengths and weaknesses. For example, copying and pasting a tweet into a Facebook status is not playing to Facebook’s strengths. Unlike Twitter, Facebook does not have a character limit and images are more important.
Matson says the most successful businesses understand that when it comes to social media, a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t the way to go. She says your business is going to look lazy if you’ve posted the exact same message on more than one platform.
“Each platform has a different nuance or vernacular if you like. What you do on Pinterest is extraordinarily different to what you do on Facebook.”
5. Give your team members autonomy
Matson says she often sees businesses becoming “stuck” while they wait for the perfect social media strategy. While it is important to come up with a detailed, original plan – you have to “just get in there and see what happens” at some point. One way to do this is for business owners to give staff members the responsibility of managing social media.
“I’m puzzled by the reluctance to allow staff to speak on behalf of the company,” she said. “Your staff have been hired and you must trust them on some level to engage with your customers.”
Giving staff members access to social media accounts is a good way to ensure the business is not neglecting its online audience. And if there are any mistakes or slip-ups, the key is to apologise and carry on because everyone makes mistakes from time-to-time.
“In the age of social media people accept we are human. When we engage with a social channel we are engaging with real people in a fast moving environment.”
Written by Broede Carmody. Broede is a SmartCompany reporter who has a passion for covering work health and safety. He studies journalism at RMIT. Follow him on Twitter: @BroedeCarmody. Visit Smartcompany where the first version of this excerpt is originally appeared.