Large corporations have quadrupled their investment in social media marketing over the past three years, while small businesses in general have failed to embrace this new medium. We asked two experts how small businesses can level the social media playing field.

Recognizing that small businesses have limited resources, brand strategist Austin Hurwitz stresses what he realizes is obvious advice: Any social media effort must begin with objectives. “I am surprised how often businesses just dive in without considering what they want to get out of it,” says Hurwitz, who has worked on Gatorade, Pepsi, Lucky Brand Jeans and Callaway Golf. “The wrong approach increases the risk you’ll be talking to yourself and potentially turning away current fans of the business or stakeholders who are already cynical.”

The over-arching goal of entering the social media fray is improving your relationship with your audience. The nature of your business will clarify your specific objectives—more followers, increased website traffic, or simply wider brand exposure—and clear goals will determine what mediums will work best. “Start small and focus on only a few areas,” says Missy Potalivo, the Owner/Chief Publicizer of Social Sense Marketing, a company she started to help small businesses gain exposure through social media. “I suggest businesses start with Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, which are the three main channels of social media right now and can all be linked together.”

Hurwitz agrees with the notion of doing fewer things better and says that “fishing where the fish are and cultivating existing behaviors should be your priority.” You might consider starting as a silent observer while learning what social media channels your audience uses, how they use them, and what content they enjoy receiving and sharing. “Leveraging, encouraging or participating in something your audience is already doing is much easier than asking them to alter their behavior,” Hurwitz says. “The chosen path should then influence your communications and how you reward audience interactions.” Whether you’re tweeting, posting or Instagram-ing, if you take advantage of technological tools that can assist small businesses with quality, consistency, speed-to-market, and analytics, you’ll have the ability to punch bigger than your weight.

The good news is that getting a foot in the proverbial social media door is easier than small business owners might think, and you don’t need a Shaq-like Twitter following. Two years ago, Potalivo began working with Convict Lake Resort, an “off-the-beaten-path gem” near Mammoth Lakes, California that had barely any social media presence and needed exposure to a bigger audience.

Using Facebook allowed her to expand the resort’s demographic and tap into different social and business networks. Potalivo experimented with multiple tactics early on to see what created the most interaction. She found that pictures, fishing facts and information about the area were most effective. “We tapped into what people were passionate about,” Potalivo says. “I think the most critical piece in any businesses’ social media success is understanding who their followers are, why they follow you and what they’re passionate about.” The resort’s Facebook followers jumped from around 100 to more than 1,700, with a high interaction rate. Even better, reservations for the resort’s cabins, five-star restaurant and lake activities all increased.

When you strike a chord with your audience like Potalivo did, be ready to capitalize. That means finding creative ways for the audience to contribute, planning follow-ups to the initial content and using PR to brag about your success. “I would say that a best practice that is often overlooked is simply planning for success,” Hurwitz says. “If it feels like you’ve got something that you know people will want to share like crazy, make it really easy for them to spread the word.”

With the right approach and tactics, a strong social media presence and effective communication with your audience has the potential to drive consumer loyalty, even at a place with a welcoming name like Convict Lake. “Having an ongoing connection with a brand makes me feel good about my decision to purchase a brand’s products, and gives me a sense of ownership so to speak,” Hurwitz says. “That’s pretty awesome, both for me and the businesses.”

SIDEBAR
5 key Steps Small Businesses Can Take To Leverage Social Channels

Establish a Clear Goal – Social media is measurable, so have an idea what you want to get out of it. If you can determine realistic objectives upfront, then you should be able to help integrate mechanisms to help achieve our goals, measure performance and optimize moving forward.

Start Small And Build – Focus helps ensure that you get the most out of your time and money, and that what you are providing via social media—as well as how you’re going about it—is valuable and sustainable.

Know Your Audience – It helps when you know who you are and who your audience is and are genuinely interested in learning who your audience is. Monitor that on an ongoing basis. Like any relationship, when you understand each other, you have a good idea of how to talk with one another.

Consistency is Key – Social Media is nothing if not current. If you can’t manage your social media sites on a consistent, daily basis, hold off on even starting until you have the time to manage the process on a daily basis.

Create Shareable Content – Pictures tell a powerful story. People love to see photographs or videos about your product or business. One of the best platforms for social media right now is Pinterest, which lets you share pictures with the link back to your website.