17/05/11

By Dr. Magda David Hercheui, Westminster Business School

Social media is everywhere, in our private and working lives. Many companies are excelling at social media, being able to engage with their audiences and getting the most from these channels.

Small to medium sized businesses (SMEs) also want to be able to use social media tools in a productive way; however they face a major issue of lack of resources. So how can a small company get the best from social media with very limited resources?

Whatever your budget, use these three simple concepts to help you start using social media channels whatever the size or volume of resources you have.

Having a strategy

The first step for building any new business activity is to define your strategy. Making it simple, you need to know why you want to occupy the social media space, and which sorts of outputs you expect from this effort. These are questions only you can answer, because this is related to your company and its overall objectives. However, I can help you think about your strategy. In a very basic way, most companies today need to occupy social media channels because the competitors are there. It is a matter of legitimacy, of showing to current and potential business partners that you are seriously in the game.

Any company needs to define their expected outputs or outcomes from their social media usage. Basically, a SME may use social media channels to have easy communication with current customers, and to link to other potential customers — the point of attracting more followers. From the interaction with customers, the company may easily measure whether its products and services are adequate, and in which way the quality may be improved. Interestingly, a participative audience may give you insights about the direction you should go to improve products and services. Thus listening to your customers before your competitor may become a competitive advantage.

In addition, a SME may use social media to have access to relevant information distributed by other social media players. There are plenty of virtual spaces of debate, using social media, on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other platforms. Engaging in conversations through these channels will give you a picture of the market, and a way of showing your expertise and differentiation from other competitors. Again building trust is a major issue to attract new customers and interesting business partners, and it will increase the number of followers of your own social media channels.

Matching resources and channels

The second step is matching your resources with social media channels. SMEs typically do not have many resources and if you start a strategy of occupying too many social media channels, chances are that you are not going to build interesting conversations in any of these spaces. Remember that once the channel is there, your audience will have expectations that you are going to answer them as soon as possible — not one week after.

You need to define which channels are relevant for you considering where your audience is. You do not get more followers just by occupying different spaces: you need to be where the audience is. However, in very generic terms, considering the present market conditions, most companies would do very well if they enter the conversation through the most popular platforms of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Personally, I would not recommend any SME to go further than this in the first stage. You may even feel it is more convenient to leave Facebook out of your strategy initially until you have consolidated your knowledge of LinkedIn and Twitter, which tend to have more business-oriented audiences.

Remember: keep the conversation going. This is about you answering your own audience, but it is also about you engaging with broader audiences, attracting attention to your business and expertise from other virtual spaces. Grow modestly but steadily, then you are able to build the trust you need to get the best from social media — and that includes more followers.

Focusing on content

The third step appears easy, but it is very complex indeed. All of us these days are overwhelmed by an excess of information. People only want to receive communications if the content gives us interesting, relevant information or business opportunities. This is an easy mistake to make in using social media: to keep talking for the sake of talking. This strategy may attract attention in the beginning, but in the long term those who talk too much will find their audience switching off.

The point is not about volume, but about quality and relevance. Know what your audience is expecting from you and the kind of content that is going to help them. Then you can work around a clear conversation agenda. People need to know what they are going to get from you through your social media channels, and then they will engage naturally, if the content is relevant enough.

While too much communication is not welcome, silence is also a social media turn-off. Define the content, work to keep up quality, and establish a frequency of communication that does not disturb your audience, nor does it leave them feeling forgotten. This is the best way of getting and keeping followers in the long term.

Remember: it is as easy to find a follower as it is to lose a follower. You do not want to only attract your audience: you want to keep them interested in your business.

About the author

Dr. Magda David Hercheui is Senior Lecturer in Project Management at Westminster Business School, editor of New Media Knowledge (http://www.nmk.co.uk/), a knowledge hub specializing in digital and social media, and a consultant in the area of digital and social media. She has a PhD in Information Systems and an MSc in New Media from the London School of Economics.