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How to Use Social Media Without High Costs or Risking Your Reputation

By Martin Zwilling Founder and CEO, Startup Professionals @StartupPro

After a frustrating meeting with a small business client recently who didn't "have time" for social media, I was surprised to find evidence on the Internet that up to one quarter of small business owners are still hesitant to invest time, money, and effort into a social media strategy.

They don't realize that they are missing out on a great opportunity for "free" promotion, as well as taking a great risk by not listening to what customers are saying, and not monitoring or responding to undeserved challenges to their reputation.

The classic example from several years ago was United Airlines not staying tuned in to social media, resulting in a unrecoverable customer problem causing great damage to their reputation, escalating to countless articles, and even a book, "United Breaks Guitars."

On a more positive note, there is a wealth of evidence that social media has resulted in some big paybacks.

Of course, nothing is totally free, and I have heard the horror stories of relatively small companies finding thirty or more employees spending most of their time scanning and using social media for promotions, or engaging high-priced consultants who never seem to be able to show any real return for all of their efforts.

I recommend the following steps as a start for maximizing your own return. I recognize that some of these may seem, well, basic to our social media-savvy readers, but based on my own recent experience in the real world, there are still plenty of people looking for a place to start:

1. Research the use of social media by your customers.

If your customers are consumers, especially on the upscale and younger side, social media is likely their number one source for brand decisions.

On the other hand, if your business is selling commodities to government entities, social media may rightly be at the bottom of your list.

2. Choose the best social media platform for your domain.

If your interest is in reaching business professionals, LinkedIn has by far the greatest potential. Snapchat is almost exclusively a young person's hangout, but you will likely find consumers of all ages on Facebook and Twitter.

For B2B environments, consider who makes the buy decisions.

3. Approach influencers and key stakeholders appropriately.

Social media is not all about being social, or treating everyone casually. For serious customers and investors, treat them with respect and stick to topics that are interesting and relevant to them.

Viral videos, personal anecdotes, and informal surveys would likely be counterproductive.

4. Integrate social media into your overall marketing strategy.

Just like ignoring social media is not smart, relying on it totally is likely not an optimal strategy.

Most businesses need a mix of offline and online marketing, promotions, loyalty programs, and community involvement. This required mix must be reviewed and updated as your brand matures.

5. Pay special attention to attract a strong first impression.

It definitely pays to get some help with your first step into social media, since first impressions often become lasting ones.

Jumping in haphazardly with poorly a focused message is definitely non-productive, and may harm your business. Do your homework before you begin.

6. Use business metrics and tools to tune your efforts.

More social media activity doesn't mean a higher return on investment. Start by getting familiar with social media analysis tools, such as Google Analytics, Snaplytics, and SproutSocial.

Always gauge progress by business indicators, like customer acquisition cost and customer satisfaction.

7. Demand professional business skills and customer advocacy.

The people who lead and deliver your social media content need to fully understand your business, and be able to make real decisions on behalf of your customers and your business.

Customers today will rate your business by the quality of your social media listening and response.

Too many business owners still consider social media a fad for chatting with your friends, or keeping up with the news. In fact, it's much more than that today, and has become one of the most important tools for every business to keep in touch with customers, and build a brand.

As with any business tool, you need to use it correctly, and measure the cost against the return.

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