Small business owners are downright social. Social media has emerged as the No. 1 platform, for obvious reasons. “Most entrepreneurs have a tight marketing budget, or it doesn’t exist at all,” says Remmi Smith, a social media juggernaut who became an online cooking star as a teenager through her savvy use of YouTube. “Social media is free, so why not use it?”

However, using social media to promote your business and using it well are different topics. Successful entrepreneurs give their advice on how to drive business by becoming a social media superstar.

Will Your Customers Thank You?

Ann Handley, chief content officer at MarketingProfs, says that the first thing a small business should consider in its social media is empathy - thinking about things from another’s point of view. That “other” should be their customers.

One way to do this is to position your product or service in a larger context, focusing on how it touches and improves people’s lives. She embraces the mantra, “The best marketing doesn’t feel like marketing;” instead, it should be useful information. The bottom line is whether your customers will thank you for the material. While this might be a soft metric, it clarifies social media in a simple way.

Ann Handley was a judge for Get Started Omaha 2017, a series of fast-paced pitch competitions started by Cox Business.

Insert Yourself into the Narrative

David Chait has found he can make a splash at trade conferences even if he doesn’t exhibit or speak by crafty use of social media. He tweets meaningful notes, thoughts and commentary, using the conference hashtags. This brings attention to his company, Travefy, a web-based travel planner that simplifies group travel. He says that entrepreneurs should constantly look for ways to insert themselves into the narrative.

David Chait won Get Started Omaha 2014

Have a Bigger Purpose

In 2008, Emily Ley started a wedding invitation business and a blog to support it. She initially wrote about business-related topics, thinking that’s what people wanted to read about. She quickly realized that she wanted to connect with other women as much as she wanted to make sales, so she shifted to writing about the challenges and growing pains of her journey as an entrepreneur. She found that having a specific purpose for social media beyond just promotion was critical. In her case, it’s “to encourage and inspire an inclusive community of perfectly imperfect women who deeply desire more of what matters in their lives.”

Emily Ley was a judge for Get Started Pensacola 2016.

Respect the Rules

The internet is often described as the “wild, wild west,” with an anything goes attitude toward content. However, most social media sites have distinct rules for posting content - and it’s important to familiarize yourself with them.

Colin Nabity is often delighted to find people on the social media sites he monitors spontaneously praising his company, LeverageRX, which provides financial advice for physicians. However, one site kicked him off after he thanked a poster for praising his product, and then answered a question the poster had. The site claimed this was promotional - which was against the rules. While Nabity didn’t agree, it shows the importance of understanding the rules of key social media sites.

Before diving in, take some time to read the policies and watch how people interact. You’ll get a sense of the community and what’s permissible there.

Colin Nabity was a finalist for Get Started Omaha 2017.

Run a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Many entrepreneurs start a blog or other social media venture with great enthusiasm, only to have it fall by the wayside in the rush of day-to-day chores. However, Melissa Withers, chief of staff for Betaspring, says something as innocuous as an inactive Twitter account can cause potential partners, employees, and customers to think your business is inactive.

Withers says entrepreneurs need to be serious about social media and not underestimate the energy, skill, and time it requires. Building momentum requires a daily commitment, so carve out time to devote to your program, as you would any other important business activity.

Melissa Withers was a judge for Get Started Rhode Island 2017.

Tell a Story - Even Someone Else’s

Ali Clark Yahnke’s homemade candy business is steeped in storytelling; the business was based on a recipe from her grandfather. Over and over, customers reach out to her with stories about their special connections to candy.

As her business has reached its fifth year, she feels that customers need a deeper reason to stay connected, so her social media has expanded to include interviews with other candy makers. “I know my limits as a business owner, and I don’t plan on providing every type of candy for every human being on earth,” she says. “When I showcase other candy companies making products I don’t, it just reaffirms the magic of candy.”

Ali Clark Yahnke won Get Started Omaha 2017.

Pick Your Spots

As a teenager, Smith launched her own YouTube cooking channel, wrote a successful cookbook, and launched her business, Chef Club Box. A subscription snack box, her company solves the problem of finding healthy snack options for busy parents. She learned early on that being strategic about her social media use was important if she was going to include it in her busy schedule.

“Don’t feel like you need to be on every social network, as that can get overwhelming,” she says. “Pick a few that fit your business and your target market, and do them well. It’s better to do fewer networks well than try to be on all of them and do it halfway.” She found that having social buttons on her product pages encourage her customers to share the products they like most with their friends.

Remmi Smith took top prize at Get Started Tulsa 2015 for her Chef Club Box.

Give Feedback on Feedback

Scott Redler co-founded Freddy’s Frozen Custard in 2002 and has overseen the company’s expansion to 270 restaurants. The company monitors social media channels and online review sites during all the hours the restaurant locations are open. When customers provide feedback, the social media team responds quickly, logs the feedback in a database, and sends the information to the local franchisee for a personal response.

Keeping a personal touch when a company is growing isn’t always easy. However, Freddy’s uses the guests’ names, everyday language, and even emoticons. Responding to negative feedback in a calm manner can defuse a situation by making customers feel like their grievances have been taken seriously. However, customers also enjoy when their positive response is noticed, such as when their comment is retweeted or when they are being thanked. In this way, Freddy’s engages appropriately with all customers on social media.

Scott Redler was a judge for Get Started Wichita 2016.

Social media can be a powerful, budget-friendly marketing resource for small businesses. By understanding these simple principles you can make these platforms work even better for your company.

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