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How social media can boost your small business


Businesses in almost every sector can benefit from using social media effectively. But navigating the landscape is not as easy as it seems, with myriad issues to consider and avoid.

Social media seems the perfect marketing tool for a small business – it’s free and it lets you talk to customers anywhere. But with so many platforms available and new ones emerging all the time, it can be a daunting prospect. So how can your business use social media to its advantage? 

Start with a plan

Step away from the smart phone for a moment, says Geraint John, founder of digital marketing agency Move Digital. “The first thing small businesses need to think about is their aims,” he says. “Do they want to bring in new leads, communicate with the general public, or speak to engaged customers about their services?” Your plan needs to be achievable, however – setting a goal of posting three blogs a week on Facebook when you’re going to be tied up with customers may be unrealistic.

Core to this plan is choosing which platforms you will focus on (See the Destinations of Choice, below). Jenna Preston, Digital Marketing Manager at Ventrica Digital, an outsourced media company, says: “It’s easy to jump to Facebook and Twitter as a quick fix, but it’s important to do some research. It’s pointless plugging all your efforts into Facebook if your prospective clients love LinkedIn.” 

Take care when outsourcing

While social media is technically free, it can be costly in other ways if it’s draining time you could be spending on growing sales. You could consider bringing in an external consultant to manage your social media output, but make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into, advises David Taylor, former FSB Corporate Communications Director.

“Educate yourself in what the consultant will be doing. Will what they do help you to make money, or save money? And can you measure it? Using an agency should not be a comfort blanket or an insurance,” he says. 

Nikki Scrivener, co-founder of PR agency Fourth day, says: “Your chosen agency should work with you to clarify the tone of voice and key messages of your business, as well as agreeing parameters. Are emojis appropriate for your business, for example? Agreeing all this from the outset means you’re not constantly having to agree posts before they go live.” 

Advertise and attract

If, as a business, you’re used to spending hundreds or even thousands of pounds on print advertising, paid-for social media advertising can be a cost-effective alternative. Facebook ads can cost as little as £10 and you can track who has come to your website this way, or include a promotion code that customers can use so you know they heard about you on social media. 

Social media advertising is also something to consider if you’re looking for new staff – as either an alternative to, or an accompaniment to, advertising on job boards. The tried and tested route for those looking for applicants is using LinkedIn to share opportunities. But don’t forget to exploit your wider networks across Facebook and Twitter, particularly if you have connections who work in a relevant field and might be able to refer someone. 

Follow and share

Getting the best out of social media is all about give and take. When you start out, the focus is on building your network and getting to know where your industry ‘meets’ online. “Spend some time following your clients, partners, industry experts, publications and even competitors,” says Gemma Farmer, Director of Neo PR.

“Not only are they likely to follow you back, but the more relevant content you have on your feed, the less likely you are to miss something that is shareable, likeable or worth responding to.” 

It also helps to scratch each other’s backs, albeit virtually. This works especially well on a local level, advises Scott Grenney from web design agency and FSB member Eddystone Media.

“If you pop out for a coffee, take a picture and share on Instagram, they’ll often return the favour,” he says. Many local areas or business networks run dedicated ‘hours’ on Twitter where companies promote themselves using an agreed hashtag. The posts during the relevant hour often get retweeted, allowing local users to see a range of businesses in one place.  

Get social offline, too 

FSB member Nicki Bidgood, who runs consulting firm Westcountry HR, started building a network on LinkedIn as a way of extending her personal connections, but it soon turned into something much bigger.

She set up a LinkedIn group and started running networking events on HR-related issues, inviting guest speakers. Her group’s following on LinkedIn and Twitter now has more than 2,000 people. “People know me now, so it’s been useful for marketing my services,” she says. “It means I have lots of names to work with. I’ve spent time looking at the data and deciding who to approach.” 

Another FSB member, Teah Brennan, who runs Rule 42 boutique in Glasgow, uses Facebook and Instagram to let customers know what’s going on. “We’re a fashion store but we also do alterations, bespoke pieces for prom nights and sewing classes,” she says.

“We’re slightly off the beaten track, so people come in based on what we’ve posted on Facebook or Instagram. We model many of our items ourselves, as they seem to sell better if customers see them on ‘real’ people rather than models.” 

Keep it fresh 

“Inactive social media accounts and unanswered queries from customers could seriously harm your business reputation and your sales,” warns Steve Lodge from Devon design agency Oxygen. “Consider if you have the time and budget to keep your pages regularly updated.” 

Mr Taylor suggests the best approach is to think like an editor or curator: “Content is crucial – how will you create content, harvest content, make the best use of content generated by users? Don’t bother signing up for YouTube if you’ve nothing interesting to share,” he says. 

Remember that it’s a conversation. If a customer posts a comment or asks about opening times, make sure you receive the right notifications so you can respond – otherwise, it just looks as though you don’t care. 

Handle negative feedback well

Sometimes that conversation can take a turn for the worse. Someone has had a poor customer experience and wants to vent their frustration, and before long everyone knows about it. “If someone has brought a genuine complaint onto a social media platform, it’s best to respond quickly, thanking them for their feedback – if appropriate – and saying you’ll contact them privately to resolve the issue,” advises Ms Scrivener from Fourth Day. 

“Don’t get drawn into lengthy debates online. Where posts contain profanities or offensive comments, it can be best to delete them and explain why you have done so.” If there’s a way of resolving the issue, doing so will earn you goodwill in the future, so it’s useful to let customers know it has been sorted. 

Timing is everything 

Choosing the right platforms for social media engagement is one thing, but knowing when to post is a whole other issue. Since most people consume social media using their phones, this is a good place to start, according to Scott Grenney from Eddystone Media.

“Think about the times of day when people are looking at their phone: around 7.30 or 8am in the morning, on the way home from work or after the school run, or after around 8pm at night. This is when people are more likely to share and comment,” he says. 

Be mindful, too, of external events or even the weather, which can affect people’s interest in interacting with social media, he advises. “Be ready to adapt if something happens – be it Budget day, National Hotdog Day or whatever – having a relevant comment will show you’re on the ball.”

Destinations of choice

Which platform works best for your business? Think about what you’re trying to achieve – a florist needs strong visuals, for example, while business-to-business services might rely on recommendations and sit better in LinkedIn. Here are some of the key platforms:

Best for personality: Facebook

“Facebook can help small businesses show off their personality and demonstrate their excellence in customer service,” says Anthony Critchley, Managing Director of Breeze Digital. There are several free and paid-for add-ons available on this platform, or you can engage customers through competitions and giveaways.

Best for B2B and recruitment: LinkedIn

Best known as a professional business network, LinkedIn can be used to share content about your business or industry sector. It’s also useful for attracting candidates if you’re hiring new people. 

Best for building a dialogue: Twitter

Twitter is great because it allows you “to listen to your customers and join in with their conversations”, says Mr Critchley. It is instant, so it’s important to stand out. Use hashtags, visuals or videos to ensure your audience sees your post rather than just scrolls past. Twitter can be useful for ad-hoc work – after advertising an offer on employee contracts, Nicki Bidgood of Westcountry HR attracted several new customers. 

Best for visuals: Pinterest and Instagram

If you’re a business with a strong visual angle, such as a florist or hairdresser, having a presence on Pinterest and Instagram is crucial. Experiment with filters and hashtags to enhance your chance of coming up in people’s searches. 
“Our Instagram channel attracts new customers, thanks to our use of eye-catching photography,” says Graeme Coyle, Assistant Marketing Manager at kitchenware company Andrew James. Pinterest allows people to save images and links for later, so it’s a good way to stay on someone’s radar. If you have a younger audience, Snapchat – where users share photos but they disappear after a certain time – is a fun channel to try.  

Best for video: Facebook Live, Instagram Stories, Twitter Moments, Periscope, YouTube

Many established platforms allow you to film a video and live-stream it to your followers. These work well if you have a announcement or an event to share. If you create a lot of video – for example, a gardening retailer might want to share planting tips – a YouTube channel is a must. “YouTube is where we draw the audience in with recipe, product or quirky promotional videos,” says Mr Coyle.