Social media has become more than just a catch phrase or a passing phenomenon. Interacting over the internet using a number of platforms, like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, has become a way of life for many people. In addition, it has also become an accepted part of the business marketing mix, if not an expected way to interact with suppliers and customers.
Social media is a broad term that refers to web-based networking and interaction over an increasing array of websites and networking platforms, accessed predominantly via computers or mobile phones. Social media has been adopted by a critical mass of users and is fast becoming a popular way of getting the attention of, and engaging with, a techno-savvy and discerning audience. It has become the new fast-paced, in-your-face, word-of-mouth carrier, with people passing on good and bad reviews much faster and to a wider audience.
A blog, which is a shortened form of the phrase 'web log', is an online log of information, including commentaries, descriptions, graphics, videos and links to other websites and blogs – either as part of a website or as a standalone webpage for sharing thoughts and information.
Most blogs are interactive and allow visitors to the site to leave comments and interact with both the blog author and other readers.
Blogs have become increasingly mainstream and a growing number of businesses have several blogs for business or corporate purposes, to communicate marketing, branding or public relations messages. They're also increasingly using blogs to add value to the customer service experience by creating useful blogs with information and links to help customers make the most of products and services.
Blogs are easy to set up and maintain and can be set up for free, although you might opt to migrate to a paid version or to incorporate your blog into your website if you're looking for more customisation and control. The most common blog sites are Blogger and Wordpress, but there are many more, and the advantage of using a less popular blog host is that your preferred blog name might still be available.
Micro blogs like Twitter, Yelp (restaurant and shopping reviews) or Foursquare (location and information sharing) send short, focused alerts, messages and links to a growing network of users. Twitter, for example, limits newsfeeds to 140 characters and has become a popular way to find and share information of interest. You can follow trending topics or popular hash tags (a # is used to tag content as related to a topic, such as #socialmedia or #blogs) search for key words or follow people with similar interests.
A number of businesses are using one or more Twitter accounts to promote their business and manage customer relations. Businesses will often run a general corporate account in addition to a thought-leader account from their CEO, or a customer service oriented account to deal with service issues and complaints.
Networking sites like socially focussed Facebook, Google+ and the more business-focused LinkedIn allow people to connect and network in cyberspace. These are very popular options for sharing information and links. These are also commonly used to ask and answer business related questions.
Facebook and LinkedIn pages for businesses are becoming the norm. Although there is some resentment to business encroachment in the principally social domain of Facebook, companies are now able to set up Facebook pages. People who become fans of Facebook business pages, by 'liking' the company page, will see the company page news feeds in their status update stream.
Video and photo sharing
Video sharing through sites like YouTube is another form of social networking. Businesses also use these platforms as a way to communicate both corporate and useful instructional information. Videos uploaded on video sharing platforms are often shared by providing links via the other social networks.
Photo sharing sites like Flickr, Instagram and Picasa are also popular. These can be used by businesses to share images of products, happy customers, or photos of events they organise.
Businesses have had to quickly come up to speed with the new networking platforms and find ways to harness them productively. Blogs are an effective way to communicate information, while micro blogs, networking sites and image sharing websites are used to interact and to drive traffic to your business's website and blogs.
Unlike conventional marketing, social media's role does not fall under traditional advertising, and should not be used as a means of pitching for sales. Social media works best when used to send out useful messages that will encourage customers to interact with you or investigate your website, blog, videos or other information. It's about generating and encouraging a new type of word-of-mouth advertising, which has the potential to go viral.
For example, a doctor's practice could send timely messages when vaccinations are due, or health and hygiene tips at other times. A sports shoe shop could count down to major races, give advice on the best shoes for different races and terrain, and also link to information about training and carb-loading to build up a social networking relationship with its customers.
What are the costs?
If you already have a computer, internet connection or mobile phone, then the costs of using social media as part of your marketing mix are small. Unlike traditional advertising, you'll be able to reach a large audience for a limited outlay in time and bandwidth. However, as your use of social media grows, you might need to employ someone on a full-time or part-time basis to help out with this, which does add to the costs. You might also need to buy programmes or pay for licences for programmes to monitor the metrics and success of your social media efforts.
What are the benefits?
Social media is a cost-effective way to broadcast updates, offer promotions and information, boost customer service and give a behind-the-scenes look into your company. It is an easily accessible, affordable and immediate form of marketing and communication. It has also become an accepted communication medium. Businesses who ignore social media appear to be behind the times and are unable to influence or take part in conversations about them.
What are the pitfalls?
There is some debate about whether social media actually has an effect on sales and provides a measurable return on investment for the time and money businesses put into it. There is the risk of spending time and a small amount of money for little effect on your bottom line.
Although the tangible effect of social media is hard to measure, it is becoming the new form of word-of-mouth advertising, and can play an important role in driving traffic to your website, creating awareness and generating good will and referrals from happy customers.
Social media has increased the influence and reach of customer-generated media and customer-to-customer communication and has, in effect, tipped the power of communication in favour of the customer. By not participating, your business does not limit the effect of customer communication. Not participating only means your business will not be aware of comments or able to influence the outcomes. This means you need to participate to benefit from social media.
Establish a presence
The first step is to sign up and establish a presence on the networks that are likely to have the most benefit to your company. Once you've reserved your name and set up your business profile, you can keep a low profile and simply watch and learn for a few days before you jump in and test the waters of the social media networks.
You'll obviously get the best return on investment if you choose social media networks that are popular with your target audience, but given the large following of both Twitter and Facebook, you'll likely want to establish a presence on both of these platforms.
You'll probably find it easier to start with one social media platform and then slowly expand your presence and activity to other networks.
Monitor the various social media platforms
The next step is to monitor the social media platforms you've selected to see if there are conversations you need or want to join. You might, for example, come across someone with a customer service issue that you are able to help with, or find people asking questions about products you sell. Most social networks have search functions or the ability to create lists of people to follow to help you monitor online conversations.
Simply put, you can't take part if you don't know what is going on. A hardware shop, for example, would benefit from creating a Twitter search list of nearby people who mention DIY. They can then offer tips or mention special deals that could appeal to these people.
Integrate social media into your marketing strategy
Because social media is fairly new, most businesses start out by experimenting until they find the right way to use social media to engage with people and promote awareness. While experimenting, it's important to ensure that you always keep your overall marketing strategy and company goals in mind. In the medium to long-term, you'll want to integrate social media into your marketing strategy and devise a specialised social media strategy.
Use social media to add value, not to sell
It is important to remember that social media is not like traditional advertising media. People will not welcome you into their social networking space if you are trying to sell to them with every message you send. But they will welcome you if you provide breaking news, useful information, or other information that adds value.
Using that hardware business as an example again: offer DIY tips, link to useful 'how to' blog articles, or post your latest video on how to mix concrete or put up a fence. This sort of proactive and useful communication is the sort of input that customers value from businesses.
This guide is intended as general advice only, and not intended to cover specific circumstances and needs. The information in this article is also not linked to any of the products offered by Clydesdale Bank PLC.