It is difficult to ignore the impact that social media marketing is having on brands and business when even your cereal packet has a “Follow us on Facebook” message on the side. And yet, many businesses seem to be struggling with how to actually deploy an effective strategy.

One of the joys of social media is that it need not be expensive. What may prove costly if you get it right is the human resource that you will need to throw at the project, but if you are getting it right, then the returns will more than support that extra resource.

An important point to bear in mind is that you can dip your toe into social, without spending a huge amount, and dabble until you find what best suits you and your target audience. Whilst there are now two major social networking sites – Facebook and Google+ – G+ is still in field trial and businesses are being actively discouraged from signing up yet.

So, you should get a presence on Facebook, which can simply be the default business Fan Page or you can set up a group to attract a community of interest. Alongside this, you should also have a blog which should sit within your website but which may be hosted elsewhere eg WordPress.com, blogger.com. You should also have both a photo account eg on Flickr.com and a video account on Youtube.com, and it may be an idea to have a Tumblr.com account too. LinkedIn.com is the business social network and a profile for both individuals and the business is a wise idea too. And of course, you should also be on Twitter.com

Now, do not reel backwards in horror at the implied amount of work this seems to create. The truth is that using some of the nifty tools now available, you can automate the vast majority of the work required to keep all of these up to date.

For instance, if you upload a video, you can also share this with just one click to your Facebook fan page. Twitter and your blog can easily feed any posts automatically direct to Facebook if you link those accounts. You can link your Twitter account directly to LinkedIn.com to make sure all of your tweets are fed automatically there, or you can choose which tweets go to LinkedIn simply by adding #in to the ones you wish to appear on LinkedIn.

So, it need not be a huge effort to suddenly become active on a number of the most popular social networks.

It is vital to remember that the key word though is “social” and broadcasting only is not viewed well by the audience. You must converse and begin dialogues. This can become time-consuming,but by limiting dialogue to those who are asking questions which may help you create an FAQ for your products to add content to your website, or to answer customer support questions, you can make best use of the time you do spend conversing with your friends and followers. Who you are, of course, endeavouring to convert into customers.

If you are nervous about dipping your toe into the water in the company name, get accustomed to the feel of the social media world by starting a personal account and experimenting. Once you are comfortable and can see ways in which the business can benefit, mastered the automation, and tracked down some of those within your sector or niche who may be able to assist in reaching the widest audience, you can open accounts in the business name.

Social media marketing is not going to go away and as reliance on traditional SEO and PPC beings to wane, it is wise to keep up with the crowd or find yourself drowning whilst you learn as your competitors steam ahead.

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About the author:

A practising internet marketing consultant since 1996, Lindsey Annison helps companies improve their website marketing, online PR and information architecture. Lindsey is also a qualified adult education lecturer and author. As co-founder of the Access to Broadband Campaign, she has been instrumental in the provision of high-speed internet access to rural areas in the UK. Lindsey is also a past winner of Silicon.com's Outstanding Contribution to UK Technology