19 tips for using Social Media in your business

Entering into the fast-moving flow of social media can be daunting to a small business owner with very little time on his/her hands. Here are some tips to help you on your way.

1. Offer a peek behind the scenes. Offering a sneak preview of new products, services, or features online can help build demand and provide critical feedback to help smooth the launch. For instance, John Doyle, founder of chocolate company John and Kira’s in Philadelphia, posts photos of new products on Flickr and invites comments from customers.

2. Harness your expertise. Chances are your company’s white paper won’t go viral. But sharing knowledge you’ve gathered through your trade can go a long way toward boosting your brand. Ford Models, for instance, became  Youtube sensations through a series of videos that featured its models giving beauty and fashion tips.

3. Demonstrate what your company does. Because multimedia is so integral to social media, getting connected allows you to express your company’s value proposition beyond words. To show just how powerful his company’s blenders were, Blendtec’s head of marketing, George Wright, created a series of videos showing the appliances churning up such diverse items as a rotisserie chicken, a Rubik’s Cube, and an iPhone. The series’ 100 million combined views helped boost Blendtec’s sales by 700 percent.

4. Put your website’s content to work. Want to draw more traffic to your website? Help spread the word by encouraging visitors to share content they enjoy. One way to promote the sharing of your site’s content is to install a widget, such as AddThis, that automates linking to popular sites.

5. Be candid. In unsure economic times, transparency goes a long way toward retaining and attracting customers. Giving readers the scoop on your company blog is an easy way to keep the lines of communication open. Giacomo Guilizzoni, the founder of San Francisco software company Balsamiq, even posts sales and profit figures to show that his company is on solid financial footing.

6. But be careful what you say about others. When Leslie Richard, owner of a North Carolina clothing company, described Vision Media Television as a “scam,” she was slapped with a $20 million lawsuit. While recounting negative experiences with others won’t necessarily lead to a court battle, it’s best to steer clear of name-calling.

7. Interact with visitors. Just putting up a blog or a Facebook fan page won’t do much good if visitors sense the flow of conversation only goes one way. In fact, Matt Mullenweg, founder of blogging platform WordPress,  lists not participating in comments as a surefire way to kill a community. Mullenweg and his team field the many suggestions users have for WordPress through his blog.

8. Don’t try to create a stand-in for yourself. With all the other tasks required within your company, it’s tempting to outsource managing your social media or even to try automating the process. That can easily backfire, as Joe Pulizzi, founder of Cleveland marketing firm Junta42, learned when he tried sending automated welcome messages to new followers on Twitter. His online contacts quickly called him out for sending out what they perceived to be spam.

9. Don’t pretend to be someone else. Thanks to IP address tracking, observers can also quickly tell when company figureheads adopt fake identities for the sake of fluffing up their reputation.

10. Help employees bond. Corporations such as IBM have built in-house networks—even virtual worlds reminiscent of Second Life—to link employees working in different locations. Small and medium-sized businesses can take advantage of readily available tools to facilitate collaboration.

11. See what people are saying about you. A quick search for mentions of your company on Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp can yield a goldmine of information concerning your reputation.

12. Make amends with dissatisfied customers, quickly. Andy Carlson, owner of an Ace Hardware store in Denver, once came across an angry Twitter update from a customer who had bought a tool that broke after one use. He resolved the issue in a matter of minutes by referring the customer to an area store and notified him of Ace’s lifetime guarantee. Best of all, he was able to catch the complaint after store hours—and prevent negative word of mouth.

13. Don’t go on the defensive. A harsh rebuke of your business on sites like Yelp can not only bruise your ego but also hurt your livelihood. But resist the temptation to lash out in public. Sarah Dunbar, owner of Oakland vintage boutique Pretty Penny, privately responds to less-than-flattering reviewers and encourages them to visit her in person. And keep in mind that you can’t please everyone. After Dunbar wrote to one dissatisfied customer, the reviewer accused her of conducting “shady business” by trying to sway opinions.

14. Find potential customers. A quick keyword search can help you find prospective customers who may not be aware of your company but could nonetheless benefit from your product or service.

15. Reach more markets. Social media can help your company reach multiple markets at a time. Restaurant chain Boloco focuses most of its advertising on Boston, which houses 13 out of its 16 locations. But as an experiment, CEO John Pepper decided to post a copy of a coupon from a local newspaper on Twitter in order to reach customers in Vermont and New Hampshire. Coupon redemptions increased by more than 150 percent as a result.

16. Target your online advertising. Facebook allows businesses to run ads that attract specific groups of users based on what information they include in their profiles.

17. Let customers help each other out. Including a customer forum on your website or social network profile can help enhance your customer service while building a sense of community.

18. Help others promote you. Social media can help you find passionate customers who are more than willing to spread the word about your company. Encourage these people to promote you.

19. But don’t promote too aggressively. While social network users have proven to be open to marketing—especially if it involves a discount—they’re not flocking to Facebook or MySpace to hear sales pitches. If your profile or blog reads like an ad, it will turn visitors away.

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