Social Media Basics for Your Small Business

Social media is the ‘it’ thing right now.  An absolute must for every business owner.  Every article, blog post, tweet, and email is screaming about it.  Fire and brimstone filled messages demand that you join this site or that site to create a profile to help your business.  If you don’t, they say, your company will suffer.  Terrible, horrible, awful things will happen.  Oh, and if you do it wrong, it’s considered worse than not having a social media profile at all.  So sign up today.  Fantastic.

There is so much pressure to do the right thing, but no actual consensus among the ‘experts’ on how to accomplish this feat.  Actually, that isn’t true, you have to ENGAGE.  The word that has now been twisted into a catch-all, which roughly translated means: I have no idea what to do, but make it interesting and professional and be yourself, but not too much like yourself.  All cleared up now, right?

Reading advice on social media for business reminds me of the articles written on parenting.  Confusing, hysterical, and pretty much no help to anyone reading them.  Over the past several months I have attempted to learn some of the basics of social media and how to use the platforms, much to the amusement of my friends and family who have been trying in vain to get me on Facebook and Twitter for years.  By no means am I an expert at social media, but I hope this basic overview on some of the more popular websites will help anyone who is diving in headfirst get started.  Below is a synopsis of how each social media platform works:

LinkedIn

This is probably the easiest format to learn.  After creating a profile which is modeled after your résumé and includes things like skills, jobs held, and associations, you invite people to connect with you for networking purposes.  Invitations to connect are exchanged by either email (via LinkedIn’s messaging and connection request options) or by allowing LinkedIn to scan your email to ‘find connections.’  Once you begin gathering connections, further suggestions for networking are made based on the existing connections of your contacts.  There is also an option to create a company page and have people follow your company for updates.

LinkedIn has groups that you can join based on industry or interest.  Some are open to everyone and others need approval by the group administrator prior to joining.  These are a great way to interact with other people you may not know, to participate in discussions relevant to your field, and for general networking purposes.  You can also post comments and links to articles and blog posts in the form of ‘updates’ in your LinkedIn account which will be viewable to your connections.

Twitter

The one basic rule of Twitter: express everything on your mind in 140 characters or less.  Although it may take a little while to get fluent in pre-teen abbreviations and ignoring punctuation, after a few tweets it should come surprisingly natural.  You create a 140 character profile and can upload a picture.  Then you can gather followers by importing contacts from your email, or by choosing to follow people first in the hope that they will follow you back.  You can also use hashtags (#) as conversation topics to engage with others who are talking about or looking for information relevant to your tweets.  For example, if you want to discuss small business you can replace those words in your tweet with #smallbiz or put that hashtag at the end of your sentence (functioning like a P.S. in a letter).  You can tweet a message yourself, re-tweet a message someone else sent, favorite a tweet, and direct message a follower (which is private and not displayed anywhere other than your Twitter direct message inbox).  On the left hand side of your account, Twitter will also suggest people for you to follow and topics which are ‘trending’ or popular at the moment.

Facebook

Here everything goes on your timeline and can be used for exclusive content or function as an extended version of your tweets if you wish.  If you post something to Twitter, but have more to say and would prefer to use full sentences and proper punctuation, here is your chance.  Recently, Facebook has added the hashtag function.  I can tell you, in theory, that they will work much like those on Twitter.  There has been a lot of chatter about this, but I could not tell you with any certainty how it will interact with the privacy settings on the Facebook accounts.

Once you choose to create a business page on Facebook, you have the option of connecting it to your personal account via a link or establishing an entirely separate profile.  I am only familiar with the business pages, but my understanding is that you have more functionality with a personal page.  You provide basic information about your company in your profile and then post updates on your timeline similar to LinkedIn.  As a business page, you can only ‘Like’ other companies.  You cannot ‘Like’ individuals or send ‘Friend’ Requests, so you are kind of limited in your ability to interact and reciprocate with individuals.  There has been a lot of buzz about new features being introduced in the coming weeks, so hopefully they will improve the business page interface.

Google +

While I have a Google + page for my business, the primary function as I see it is to improve my website’s SEO (Search Engine Optimization) ranking within Google’s search engine.  Since Google owns this, and pretty much the internet, it registers you as more legitimate and helps your company’s website (via links from your Google + profile) rank better.  I view this as the functional equivalent of the Facebook page, but with far less viewers and traffic.  You post in much the same manner and it seems that far fewer people use Google + for company or personal pages than they do to log into YouTube.

Blog

Very, very new to blogging in general myself, but if you are reading this then you are probably here at my company’s blog page.  So, thank you.  This is probably the most time-consuming of the social media outlets discussed, if for no other reason than I am thoroughly preoccupied with doing it correctly.  From what I read this will be easier the more often it is done and I hope that is true.  I have a stack of 98% complete blog posts that say otherwise, but that may be more of my own perfectionism.  You can set up a blog page by getting an account on WordPress, Blogger, or any other number of providers.  There are free and paid options available depending on what you have planned for your blog.  Once you have designed your page, you can post your musings as you see fit.  These can be given ‘tags’ so that they become searchable and other people can find your information.  Some blogs can be integrated into your website or they can act as standalone platforms depending on how you set it up.

Of course, there are a ton of other social media forums, like Pinterest and Instagram to name a few, but the above are the ones that I have pored over and managed to get some insight on.  Each has a getting started tutorial and a help center, some are better than others and all are better than Google +’s help page.  Even though it can seem overwhelming, especially if you are completely new to social media, you can do it.

Overall, try to be realistic in your approach.  Start with one website at a time and get the hang of it.  Set a goal on the number of messages going out per week to begin and adjust as necessary.  You can send out whatever types of messages you like.  A few examples: links (or even shortened URLs) that are relevant to your business or interests, tips, or notice of special offers or deals.  These can be variations across multiple platforms or the same thing; you don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that there are websites, like SproutSocial and Hootsuite, that will help you manage your social media accounts in one place.  They both offer paid social media management and Hootsuite also has a free program with fewer options.  If you decide to go this route, you can log into one place and access each of your social media accounts from one main control panel or dashboard.  You can also schedule messages to go out when you want and to which platform.  This can save time if you want to schedule for the week or limit yourself to one login.  Of course, there are a multitude of companies that will create content and operate social media accounts on your behalf.  While this may be a good option for you, I would still suggest learning the basics yourself first so you can be a more social media savvy consumer.

Finally, I would also recommend starting out by looking at some articles on Manta and Business2Community.  Both sites tend to have articles that are easier to understand than some of the more tech focused pages and are a good place to begin.  Take a deep breath; pick one site to start on and good luck!

Featured Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net