Using social media

1 Overview
2 Choosing the right social media platforms
3 Your social media strategy
4 Social media: advantages and disadvantages
5 Using social media to support innovation
6 Marketing using social media
7 Social media security
8 Social media checklist

1. Overview

This guide will show you how your business can use the social media to make connections and gain a commercial advantage. It will also discuss how you can create a social networking strategy and choose the right social media platforms for your business.

Search for social media events in your area.

2. Choosing the right social media platforms

Using social networks can make you stand out from your competitors. Engaging with your customers online can raise awareness and build your reputation as a trusted supplier. Social networks give your business an opportunity to gain new contacts from the comfort of your office. Don't underestimate the savings in cost, time and other resources such as travel that not having to attend a physical networking event can bring to your enterprise.

Social networking can improve your business in a number of key areas:

  • recruitment
  • marketing
  • brand building
  • customer interaction
  • locating strategic commercial partners
  • gathering business intelligence

When choosing which social media platform to use, it's important to understand where your customers are. You should target your efforts towards the channels they use. In some cases, you will find your best choice is obvious - for example, you may already know that there is a group on Facebook that reflects your business interests and is used by your customers.

You may find you need a combination of social media channels to cover all your needs. However, it is a good idea to make sure your messages and campaigns are well thought-out and suit your target audience. Like email marketing, your business may suffer if your messages are poorly-targeted towards your customers.

Blogs

Blogging involves posting regular stories, pieces of commentary or other content to a website, which can be accessed and read by customers and other industry professionals. Most blogs are interactive, allowing visitors to leave comments and message each other.

By creating thought-provoking posts on industry issues, you can build a reputation as an authority in the field, stimulate discussion and strengthen your relationship with customers. Blogging also provides another route for potential customers to find you if they're not aware of your website.

Online PR

Online PR may include engaging or responding to blogs that are not your own, with the intent of marketing or advertising your product or service. You will need to pay attention when choosing the blog you wish to engage so that you have the right target audience.

Social network channels

Social network services are online platforms, which allow people to create a profile representing themselves, and connect with others to broadcast information, stay in touch, send messages and recommend one another.

You could either join a general social networking site - such as Facebook - or a specialist business site such as LinkedIn or Talkbiznow.

Social network channels allow you to build a community of engaged customers who will spread your news and information for you. They can also help you get answers to business questions and find new suppliers.

Having a presence on a social networking channel can keep you on your industry map with relatively little time and effort.

Internet forums

An internet forum, or message board, is an online facility where people can ask questions and hold discussions by posting and replying to messages. Participating in industry and consumer forums to share your expertise and give constructive advice can boost your reputation.

Many forums are moderated (that is, messages are approved before they appear online) so you will need to think carefully about how you present any sales messages. Responding on a forum purely to post sales messages will not impress potential customers and may get your messages rejected or even banned.

3. Your social media strategy

To get started with social media and make sure you use it effectively, there are a series of steps to follow.

Listen

Even if you do not want to market directly to the social web, it is important to listen to what people are saying about your brand online. If you don't listen, you risk distancing your brand from current and potential customers. Using free tools like Google Alerts and TweetBeep you can track key words and phrases, so that you can follow the conversations that people are having about you.

It is also a good idea to think about who you want to listen to. You may find it useful to prioritise certain groups of people. For example, do you want to listen to all customers, customers from a certain place, or competitors in particular?

Target and position

Once you have started to listen, you need to decide which social media platforms are best for your business. Where is your audience and what are they talking about? You need to identify what their 'passion points' are, so that you can engage with them in an engaging and meaningful way.

Once you start talking to your audience you need to identify who the 'influencers' are - these are the people who post regularly, who receive a lot of comments from others or are linked to in other people's content. These types of users can help you communicate to a wider audience.

Converse

Use your presence to engage with the community and open up a dialogue with customers. By listening and responding to what people have to say, rather than just pushing sales messages, you can gain valuable insights and build trust in your brand. It is important to say something regularly.

Think about the 'tone of voice' that you use in your content - customers will trust you more if they feel that you are honest, responsive and engaging in your interactions with them.

Protect

Since social media is a public forum, it is important to address any negative feedback quickly and honestly. Responding thoughtfully to negative feedback, resolving customer problems and apologising - sincerely - can go a long way toward limiting damage. You may need a follow-up phone call or email about some issues. However, responding thoughtfully to negative feedback shows your current and potential customers that you value good customer service.

Assess any impact that negative feedback may have to your search engine ranking. It is important to 'own' your ranking in universal search, so if negative links begin to be displayed for your brand, you will need to address this

Measure

To understand your return on investment from social media, you will need to choose some key metrics to measure its effect. For example, for a Twitter account you could measure the number of people who follow your account, the number of retweets and/or replies to your posts, and the number of visits to your site through a link from Twitter. You will also need to measure sentiment - what customers are saying about you. An example of how to do this would be working out the ratio of positive to negative comments.

4. Social media: advantages and disadvantages

Too many businesses enter into social media because it's 'the done thing' - they feel they should have a presence purely because their competitors do. There are a number of real benefits to getting involved with social media, provided it is properly planned and executed.

Business advantages of effective social media use include:

  • compelling and relevant content will grab the attention of potential customers and increase brand visibility
  • you can respond almost instantly to industry developments and become heard in your field
  • it can be much cheaper than traditional advertising and promotional activities
  • social content can indirectly boost links to website content by appearing in universal search results, improving search traffic and online sales
  • you can deliver improved customer service and respond effectively to feedback
  • customers can find you through new channels, generating more leads
  • increased loyalty and advocacy from the customers you've connected with

Disadvantages include:

  • you will need to commit resources to managing your social media presence, responding to feedback and producing new content
  • you will need to decide how to respond in the event of receiving negative feedback. You would need to be careful in your response so your tone of voice doesn't affect your brand name negatively
  • it can be difficult to quantify the return on investment and the value of one channel over another
  • ineffective use - for example, using the network to push for sales without engaging with customers, or failing to respond to negative feedback - may damage your reputation

5. Using social media to support innovation

Social media can be an excellent way to reach out to both existing and potential customers and take advantage of their creativity. There are two ways to involve your network in developing new products and services:

  • Crowdsourcing - asking your network to brainstorm solutions to a particular problem your company is experiencing, either on their own or in groups. The community collects, develops and ranks the contributions to reveal the strongest performers.
  • Open innovation - allowing people to submit their own competitive ideas and inventions for your company to harness.

With so many minds able to network together, crowdsourcing and open innovation allow people to work together on a massive scale. By involving your online contact network in your company, you can benefit from:

  • the wisdom and creativity of people outside your own workforce
  • the increased likelihood of people picking up on and developing innovative ideas that might otherwise go unrecognised
  • the outside perspective of customers - and potential customers - who may see issues and opportunities you're unaware of
  • increased customer loyalty and brand advocacy that comes from having a say in your company's offer
  • lower costs when developing new products or enhancements, and more certain market success for them

Some potential drawbacks include:

  • a lack of long-term motivation from participants
  • a lack of written contracts, non-disclosure agreements or employee agreements
  • difficulties managing a large-scale project and maintaining a working relationship with crowdsourced workers

For crowdsourcing to be truly effective, you will need to reward the people who make a difference to your profitability - for example, by giving prizes or simply crediting work. Beware of causing discontent by failing to recognise the efforts of contributors.

6. Marketing using social media

Making connection with other businesses via online business networks ultimately means marketing your goods or services. It is important to realise that online networking isn't just another sales channel that you can approach in just the same way as your other online marketing. Special attention has to be paid to the network members themselves and what level of advertising they are prepared to tolerate on their network.

Networking and marketing strategies

The types of advertising you can use within the online networks you join are similar to those that you may already be using across the web. These include:

  • Banner advertising - banners occupy a designated area for rent on web pages, and can include video, audio and interactive capabilities. Banner advertising usually works on 'click-through' - users click on the banner and are linked to the website that is paying for the advert.
  • Email campaigns - sending targeted emails to selected customers or potential new customers, sometimes containing special offers, discounts and other promotions.
  • Viral marketing - online 'word-of-mouth' or 'tell a friend' campaigns that encourage users to spread the message to their social networks.
  • Link building - some social networking sites provide profile pages, blogs or other editable spaces that allow keyword rich links to be added. This can contribute to your search engine optimisation strategy.

You may also want to take advantage of newer, targeted forms of advertising using social media sites. This could include:

  • posting links or mentioning a product or service in your status updates
  • automatically-generated targeted banner advertising, based on a site's user-demographic data
  • creating 'groups' or 'pages' to market a contest or new product, or to increase brand awareness
  • offering cheap or free apps, such as games or useful tools, which carry your brand

Understanding online network users

You may already be using each of the above types of advertising to promote your business online. Remember that networks are collections of people and businesses that have chosen to join that network to gain business contacts and not necessarily to see advertising messages.

You must evaluate the level of advertising and promotional material you can push to these members. Also, the kind of advertising you use is also important. A viral ad campaign may be wholly inappropriate within a network of company directors for instance.

You should also check the terms and conditions of any online network that you intend to use, to ensure that any marketing activity that you do is acceptable.

Targeted advertising

Online networks are now becoming a hotbed for advertising space. Businesses have been quick to realise that the captive audience of online networks are ideal for focused marketing messages.

Placing advertising within online networks is gathering pace. As with your business' other marketing spend, carefully consider which online networks to use and the marketing message you want to get across. This will ensure a good return on your investment.

Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace offer a number of different advertising options including pay per click, pay per view, banner ads, Flash ads and classified notices. Advertising can be targeted against a variety of demographic criteria (eg age, marital status, location) relating to network members. Some sites have tools that can be used for research, giving your business valuable customer profile information. This will allow you to make informed decisions about whether a particular social networking site is appropriate to your marketing strategy.

Network marketing dos and don'ts

If you intend to use online networking as part of your marketing mix, there are a number of dos and don'ts you should comply with:

Do:

  • Thoroughly research the network(s) you want to advertise on. Understand who the participants are, and what marketing messages they are open to.
  • Develop metrics to enable you to track and analyse the return you are getting.
  • Ensure you are aware of and comply with all the regulations and legislation that now apply to online marketing.

Don't:

  • Spam your fellow network users with messages. With online network marketing, quality is much more favourable than quantity.
  • Ever sell or otherwise pass on any personal details about the people or businesses on your target network without their permission.

7. Social media security

Whether you intend to join one or a number of online networks, security should be at the top of your agenda. With the rise of identity theft, fake emails and security threats to small and large companies, ensuring you are using online networks safely is essential.

Online security

Each time you login to use an online network, you expose yourself and your business to a level of attack from hackers and other malicious groups. However, you are not powerless in the face of what may seem like an unstoppable wave of identity theft and threats to your security. Follow the guidelines below to ensure you use online networks safely:

  • Keep your login details secure and regularly change your password.
  • Be suspicious of anyone who contacts you out of the blue claiming to be part of one of the networks you are a member of. This could be a phishing attack. Phishing is where legitimate-looking emails seemingly from a reliable source, eg a bank or another business, are used with the aim of obtaining personal details.
  • Watch out for corporate identity theft. Your business name could be used within online networks without your knowledge or permission. Contact Companies House Contact Centre on Tel 0303 1234 500 for more information about this type of security threat. 
  • Never reveal any sensitive information about yourself or your business without first checking the credentials of the enquirer.
  • If you use email-based online networks, use filtering software to reduce the instances of spam and phishing attacks.
  • If you access online networks via wireless internet access, ensure you have adequate security to protect your wireless network from eavesdropping and hacker attack.
  • Avoid opening email attachments from unknown sources - or if known - eg from a fellow employee, check with the sender first if the attachment isn't something you expected. Don't open attachments such as those ending with '.exe' (an executable file) or those with the '.scr' which is the file extension used for Windows screensavers, as these can also be Trojans that can infect your computer.
  • Avoid clicking on links added to messages in any social networking websites that you use. These include links to current events, entertainment news or other links to high traffic sites. These links can take you to phishing websites and have the potential to infect your computer. If clicking on a link, always check the website address you have been taken to in order to ensure you are where you believe you should be.
  • Avoid clicking on advertising emails and popup boxes and be cautious of any application that wants to install itself on your computer.

8. Social media checklist

Whether you are looking for one or more online networks to join, or are thinking about starting your own network, there are a lot of factors to consider. Planning is vitally important to ensure you join the right network(s) that will deliver the business benefits you are looking for.

General points when joining a network:

  • Develop your user profile. Networking is all about relationships. The more people and businesses know about you, the closer that relationship. However, be careful when exposing information about yourself and your business. Always check your data is being held securely.
  • Obey the network rules. Every network has its own rules. Ensure you are aware of the etiquette that is in place.
  • Maintain contacts. It can be difficult to maintain a large number of contacts as you join more networks. Identify the key contacts you want to maintain a relationship with. This will enable you to better budget your time and resources.
  • Create new, original and engaging content. No one wants to read boring posts on the networks you are a member of. Try to write relevant and engaging content each time you contribute to a network.
  • Place advertising on carefully chosen networks. The online networks that have developed over the last few years are clearly a great location for your business' advertising. Banner ads are now appearing on network websites. Careful consideration must be given to what kind of advertising is placed on these networks and what messages they contain. Research the profile of network members to help you design an engaging advertising message they will positively respond to.

Checklist when joining a business network:

  • Choose the right network for your business goals. Ask yourself why you are joining an online network. What do you want to get out of this activity?
  • Avoid the hard sell. Your core motivation for joining an online network may be to sell your business' goods or products. Try to avoid hard sales pitches on your networks as these are usually rejected.
  • Commit enough resources. When joining one or more online networks that support your sector, think about how much time and resources you have available. You and your business need to maintain these network connections, which can take more time and resources than you might initially think.
  • Enhance your business brand. Joining a network can have a great positive impact on your business' brand. The close working relationships you can build via networks is now an essential component of modern branding practice.
  • Include online networking within your marketing mix. Online networks may have marketing at their heart, but don't forget the other forms of promotion your business is using. It's easy to disproportionately assign resources to online networking. Don't forget your other forms of advertising and promotion, as they are effective as well.

Contact your local Business Gateway office.

Your local office will be able to answer your questions on this or any other business subject. 

Related content