social media resources

This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Microsoft Office. All opinions are 100% mine.

I recently received this excellent question from one of my students:

“Big global companies usually have a social media department but medium and small companies just add this job for some marketing or PR manager in addition to the current area of responsibility or hire some cheap intern — with negative results.  So how should a small business with limited resources realistically approach social media marketing?”

The time and resources needed to be effective in social media is certainly a problem for companies big and small. I think we can burst the bubble by now  — social media is NOT free. In fact, large brands are devoting a significant part of their marketing budget to these efforts.

There seems to be no choice — most companies must develop some competency in this channel. In addition to the obvious reason that social media has become a preferred method of communication (and complaining) for many demographic groups, traditional marketing channels are drying up. People seeking information before working for you might very well start on Facebook and Twitter.

For nearly every organization, establishing a foothold on the social web is essential. If you’re a small business and have very few resources, how do you make this transition?

The big difference is, as a small business owner, you have less room for error.  You probably don’t have the luxury of hiring a new team to create a social media effort.  So here are some ways to minimize the risk during this transition:

1) Do a reality check. 

Before committing to a new plan, conduct a simple survey or get out and talk to your customers. Where are they spending their time?  What are your competitors doing?  Keep in mind that there is probably a first-movers advantage for many businesses so don’t overlook the fact that creating a competency in social media marketing could be a source of competitive advantage. Take a look at the information density in your vertical. Where do have room to maneuver?

2) Determine your source of rich content.

Content is the “fuel” of social media and to have an opportunity for vast reach, you need a source of “rich content:” a blog, podcast, video series, or visual content. Don’t worry about being everywhere. Pick one of these sources that matches the skills and personality of your business and do it well for a year or two before diversifying.

Do you enjoy writing? Blogging might be for you. Do you need to do a lot of product demonstrations? Video might work best? Podcasts (an internet radio show) are growing in popularity. Could that be a way for you to stand out? Spend some time considering which channel is right for you since this is an important decision – it will take up most of your marketing resources.

3) Plan.

Do you have a marketing plan? Do you know what makes you different? Why customers keep coming back? What are your company’s critical needs right now? How can some of these new social media opportunities specifically align with your goals? Don’t get caught up in the hype. Focus on how social media can align with your business goals and core competencies.

If you can answer these questions, your social media strategy will become apparent because you’ll know what to say and where to say it! Your budget probably does not have much room for “extra,” so carefully think through how this activity will best move the needle for your business. Putting together a plan can be difficult. Here is a resource from Microsoft Office Small Business Academy that can help.

4) Get professional help.

95% of the companies I see engaging in social media are simply checking a box and not getting much out of the effort. In other words, they had somebody’s cousin create the company Facebook page.  For the first six months, it usually makes sense to invest in a marketing professional to give you some guidance and speed you through the learning curve.

It’s like strapping yourself to an instructor the first time you skydive. After a couple trips, you’re ready to go it alone. When seeking expert help, ask this question: What previous marketing experience do you have and can you show me measurable results of your social media efforts?

5) Don’t view social media as an “add on.”

Before you hire a new social media team, I would first look at where you are spending your current budget and resources today – is it time to re-adjust?  For example, spending on newspaper advertising has declined by 75% in the US (down to 1950s levels).  If you have been spending much of your time on traditional forms of advertising, it might be time to move those resources to something else. You have to go where your customers are.  Should you re-allocate?  If you just pile more work on to existing employees this will probably fail.

6) Re-frame the opportunity.

Here’s some good news. Ten years ago, you would take out an ad and wait for something to happen. Today, literally every employee can be involved in “marketing” as a beacon for your company on the social web. It’s a new way of thinking, isn’t it? How can you capture employee incremental time or down time? How can you involve and engage the many networks of your employees, customers, and other stakeholders?

Another way to re-frame the opportunity is that marketing through the social web can possibly be a great equalizer for small businesses. For a little bit of time and effort, you can potentially have a very powerful impact and possibly reach vast new audiences.

7) Realistic expectations.

For many small companies, the result from social media marketing is more like the long-term benefits of networking at a chamber of commerce meeting than the short-term benefits of issuing a coupon in the newspaper. So you need to have a realistic attitude about what you can achieve in the short term and long term.

Don’t get me wrong — short-term financial benefits are certainly possible — but in general, it takes time to work toward that. Studies support the idea that for most businesses, a realistic expectation would be to increase awareness in year one, boost engagement levels with key audiences in year two, and realize financial benefits in year three.

I’ve worked with many small businesses and start-ups so I know how painful and risky these marketing decisions can be.  Let me leave you with one last thought. Perhaps the business case for social media isn’t “ROI.” It might be relevance. Will you be relevant with the customers of today and tomorrow without a social media presence?

I use Microsoft Office every day and believe in the resources they offer to me and other small business owners through their free Small Business Academy. Heck, I even use Powerpoint as an essential part of my content creation strategy (including the illustration for today’s post). Register here for the free Microsoft Small Business Academy.

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