August 2, 2010 | last updated March 25, 2012 2:28 am

Knowhow: Social Media Marketing

Social media is the buzz phrase in marketing today. And small business owners are anxious to start using the various tools (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.) without a clear and stated goal.

It's important to understand that these tools are simply tactics. Jumping in and using them without a plan will lead to wasted time, frustration and eventual abandonment of what could be a very valuable company asset. To make sure you get the most out of social networking, consider the guidance below to craft a plan that fits your overall business strategy.

Every business is unique. Understand that there isn't a magic bullet out there. A solid social media strategy takes a lot of effort. Secondarily, understand that you need to make a long-term commitment. Done correctly, social media is a very cost- effective way to accomplish your goals. You may have heard social media is free, but that is misleading — it takes time.

Determine your goals and objectives. Make them specific, attainable and measurable. Write them out. For example, you may want to acquire new visitors to your web properties, convert visitors into customers or improve customer service.

Research where your customers are and what they're talking about. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are some of the most popular sites today. With the numbers these networks are attracting daily, it's a good bet you may have a good number of customers on these sites. One tool I recommend is Google Alerts. Use this free service to listen to what's being said on any topic related to your brand, product or services. Visit Google.com/alerts for more information.

Join the conversation. Keep in mind that people do not join social networks to be sold to. Like any relationship, you need to get to know someone before you can develop trust. There is a certain amount of etiquette involved with social networks. Once you find where your customers are hanging out online, you should listen for a while before joining the conversation. There are four elements to a solid foundation you should strive to build with any social media campaign: communication, collaboration, education and entertainment. Sales is not the goal here — making connections and offering content that will help the community at large is.

Measure results. If your objective is to increase traffic, then you should track the number of visitors to your website and which social media sites referred them there. If you are looking to find out how your latest product is received (real-time focus group) you can track mentions on sites like Twitter. You can also measure customer satisfaction with surveys, referrals and renewal rates. Measure customer engagement by tracking newsletter subscriptions, online community activity, event attendance, testimonials and the amount of feedback you receive.

Analyze, adapt, and improve. Analyze what customers are saying about your product and service. Understanding what your customers want or don't want allows you to change rapidly and improve your products, services and processes in real-time.

Because social media presents so many opportunities, having a strategy is imperative. Think of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs as tools that tie into your larger strategy.

Pick one or two goals and use the steps above to launch and manage a successful social media effort. Similar to the game of American football, once you have a game plan, it's just blocking and tackling after that. The better you execute your game plan, the more success you will have.

Tim Ludy is the owner of Reliable Business Partners of Shrewsbury. He can be reached at timludy@reliablebusinesspartners.com.

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