By David Donnan, Director, MSG

One of the greatest challenges that small businesses face is making customers loyal and beyond that, mobilising them as champions for the company and its products or services. The advent of social networking tools and practices offers a possible solution, providing a means for businesses to communicate with customers directly and en masse simultaneously. As such, social networking is now an important consideration for any small business’ communications strategy.

As businesses feel increasing pressure to get involved with social networks, many have jumped on the bandwagon without really understanding what they are undertaking. This approach generally results in poorly-executed social media interaction, which can range in negative impact, from simply draining company resources with no benefit for the business or its customers, to more serious repercussions such as damaging the way the organisation is perceived.

It’s critical that small businesses mitigate these risks by carefully researching the options, clearly setting project objectives and building a strategy that best fits the available resources.

Identifying Your Destination

Before joining the bandwagon it’s important to understand the nature of the journey being undertaken. Social networking will not often present direct sales opportunities and approached as a sales tool will likely backfire. Rather, the focus should always be on the “social” element, providing a unique opportunity for companies to talk directly and personally to their customers, helping to strengthen relationships, and ultimately building brand loyalty.

This then provides businesses with an opportunity to advertise products or services to an engaged audience. Answering questions and providing direction allows them to talk up their offering, but the emphasis is placed on providing an interactive and enjoyable customer experience visible to a wider audience of potential customers.

Learning the Landscape

If you feel that your business is ready for this kind of direct, social interaction with the market, the first step is to identify your options. Research what social networking tools and services are available; which are the most popular; what kind of community they serve; and build an understanding of the tone and format of communications appropriate for each

Informal community-oriented sites such as Facebook, Twitter and various forums can also provide a public theatre in which your organisation can face heavy scrutiny or direct criticism. Handled correctly, businesses have the potential to turn this to their advantage. Providing honest and timely responses to criticism; demonstrating that feedback is taken on board; and engaging customers personally to address their concerns are all ways to help your business to be seen as proactive and caring.

Packing for the Journey

Providing this kind of personable content can be very time-consuming and resource-intensive. Consequently, many small businesses join a network and quickly discover they have got insufficient resources, have not planned for content creation to maintain the interests of their audience, or are not clear of who “owns” various types of communication.

Subsequently, many businesses plan to “play it safe”; using social networks to publish news, products updates and sales messages only. This kind of content isn’t really social and followers looking for direct, personal engagement can be put off.

Small businesses don’t need to reinvent the wheel though. Retweeting information from the business’ sphere of interest is a great way of creating content that is relevant and positions them as a subject-matter-expert that shares their followers’ interests. Alternatively companies can use social networking as a conduit for support, pushing new information and directly addressing questions.

Regardless of the content provided, the key to ensuring it supports the business objectives is clear ownership and consistency with brand messaging. Without this, followers will likely receive mixed or unclear messages, making the business appear incompetent or dishonest.

Tracking the Distance Travelled

Calculating ROI for communications projects is notoriously difficult and social networking is no exception. There are number of success factors that can be tracked and measured, depending on the project objectives. For projects focused on brand visibility, Google rank, numbers of followers/ fans, and the size of the online conversation can all be reported. Qualitative data requires more sophisticated measurement tools, but a couple of examples include measuring the sentiment of online conversations or the appeal of various URLs. Measuring the results not only shows the value of the project, it also helps businesses determine what they are doing well and what can be improved.

Getting social networking right is essential as the upcoming generations of consumers and workers are all “Digital Natives” and expect to be able to interact in the virtual world as directly and easily as they do in the physical one. As such, the importance of social networking tools as part of a complete communications strategy is only going to increase. Small businesses need to get to grips with it now while it‘s still considered something of a frontier in marketing.

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