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You don't need to be a big brand or a celebrity sensation to build a following. With proper messaging and a thoughtful distribution strategy, small business owners can establish themselves as leaders in their field and cultivate an audience of their own.    

Developing your influence is a critical part of a successful publicity strategy, says Amanda K. Ruisi, founder and president of AKR Public Relations, an award-winning, full-service PR agency she launched when she was just 27 years old. To start her business, Ruisi drew on the skills she had mastered while launching pop culture phenomenon TV shows for NBC. Since its inception, AKR PR has worked with NBC, Steven Tyler, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Giorgio Armani Beauty, Capital One, Proctor & Gamble," "Jersey Shore," Coty Prestige, and many more.

Small businesses can use the same steps Ruisi takes to help her A-list clients build credibility. Here's what you need to do.

Identify your message

The first step in building your influence is identifying your core message--what you do and why, as well as your company goals, says Ruisi. To help define your message, consider the problems you are solving for your customers and any voids you are filling in the marketplace. Then, heed Ruisi's messaging tips:

  • Be authentic. "The most important thing is authenticity--knowing and staying true to the core identity you created," stresses Ruisi. Veering off message is one of the most common mistakes people make when trying to build an audience, she says. For example, a brand might share a post about a trending news story that doesn't relate to its purpose. That post might drive likes, but it is not authentic, and it is diluting the brand's message. Before sharing any type of content with your audience, ask yourself: "Is this on brand? Is this in line with my messaging and the persona I have created?" If not, rethink the content.

  • Stay consistent. Ruisi observes that many small businesses have well-defined messaging, but a common pitfall is consistently translating that message across all communications, whether it is a print advertisement, client presentation, or social media post. You want people to understand what you stand for and to begin to make instant associations every time they see your name or logo. The world's most successful brands are masters at this. Coca-Cola has had a very identifiable brand since the 1970s. "Iconic brands will pivot along the way, if needed, but they always bring things back to the same message."

  • Think beyond what you are selling. Establish yourself as an expert in your industry, not just in the products or services you sell. For example, if you are selling vitamins and have established yourself as an expert in nutrition, people will think of you when they need them. Share content that demonstrates why vitamins matter and help people choose the right kind for them. This will showcase your expertise and educate your audience.

Find and engage your audience

Now it is time to communicate your message to your key demographic. By consistently "sharing content that establishes your business as the authoritative voice in your field, you will give people the impression that you are an industry leader," says Ruisi.

Small businesses can build an audience by sharing content on their blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and/or Medium. Just be sure to choose the platforms your target audience is engaging with. Additionally, consider pursuing opportunities to contribute thought leadership articles to publications your target audience reads and to speak at relevant events. Ruisi urges small businesses to:

  • Focus on the right audience. Your audience consists of the clients and prospects who have opted to hear from you by visiting your website, subscribing to your newsletter, following you on social media, or attending a conference you are speaking at. Research from Markerly shows that micro-influencers, influencers that have between 25,000-250,000 followers, have higher engagement on their posts than influencers with massive followings. The lesson here is to cater to the people who are most likely to do business with you rather than trying to earn as many followers as possible. A small but engaged audience is more beneficial than a large, passive one.

  • Emphasize engagement. If you don't keep your audience engaged, you will lose them, she warns. You are not talking at people, you are having a conversation with them. Try to share content that gets people talking and reply to all comments.    

  • Connect with other influencers. To build credibility and reach more people, consider partnering with established influencers in your field. On social media, follow brands and people who are engaging in relevant conversations. Ruisi uses the same handle--@akrpr--across platforms to make it easier to find her. You can also reach out about writing a guest blog for their site or even paying them to share a sponsored post about your business.  

Measure and refine

Ruisi says it is important to tie your efforts to specific, measurable goals. For example, perhaps you are raising awareness about a new product you are launching. Define and monitor metrics to assess how well you are delivering your message. Consider whether your audience is growing, but more importantly, if that audience is engaged.

Ruisi cautions that although clicks and "likes" are nice, they are not actually benchmarks for engagement. On social media, monitor comments and shares, too, as well as conversations that are happening outside of your own platforms. Try these tips:

  • Use a social listening tool. There is a host of free and paid tools and services that can help you follow mentions of your brand and relevant conversations. Here are some tips for choosing a good one.

  • Take advantage of free analytics. On social media, channels provide decent data for free. On Instagram, be sure to set up a business profile so you can access more insights, including information on engagement, impressions, and audience demographics.

  • Be fluid. Just because you are consistent with your messaging doesn't mean you can't experiment with different ways to share that message. Test out different strategies and distribution channels. Consider what is working and why. For example, perhaps you want to test out creating an infographic or simple video or measure how contributing to an industry trade affects your website traffic.

Ruisi notes she has followed this same advice to build her own career. She defined her value in the space, and she stayed true to that messaging. She demonstrates thought leadership in her field by writing and contributing to articles (like this one!) and speaking at relevant conferences. With steps like these, small businesses can earn their audience's trust, strengthen relationships with existing clients and prospects, and, ultimately, build their reputation--and their business.