Social media has become less of an optional marketing opportunity and more of a priority. Over the past few years, an interesting transformation has occurred in the business world. In fact, platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become integral parts of brand awareness, content distribution, lead generation, and customer acquisition strategies for businesses. This is especially true for startups working with smaller budgets and grassroots campaigns. However, despite its importance, very few startups and new ventures understand how to maximize the potential of social media.

Why the fuss about social media?

There are still a lot of businesses without a social media presence. Some have made a conscious decision to steer clear of it. Others might not understand the benefits of using it. And many businesses avoid using it for negative rather than positive reasons. Some businesses:

* Are overwhelmed by the options and don’t know how to start
* Don’t understand the difference between Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the rest
* Are worried by scary stories they’ve read in the press
* Think it will be expensive or time-consuming.

The reality is that social networks can bring a whole new dimension to your business.

Social media is an integral part of any small business success strategy. In fact, in today’s day and age, small businesses cannot afford to ignore social media.

According to some recent studies, social media can be a powerful lead generation tool:

74% of online adults use social networking sites.
Social media may account for as much as 57% of your sales funnel.
81% of consumers research online before making big purchases.
Three in five SMBs say they’ve gained new customers by using social media.

When you take into consideration the cost of traditional marketing and compare it to social media marketing, it becomes clear that social media marketing comes out on top. Even a small business with a low marketing budget can afford using Facebook Ads or to invest in Promoted Pins.

But even if your budget doesn’t allow for any type of marketing investment, you can still benefit from using social media to develop your small business social media marketing strategy.

It’s important for you to invest in the platforms where you’re more likely to reach and engage with your audience.

To choose the best social media channels for you to interact with your customers, take some time to familiarize yourself with each network, how it runs and what demographics use that platform. Here are the basics you need to know about today’s most popular social media platforms.

Facebook

Facebook is the biggest social network on the web, both in terms of name recognition and a total number of users. With nearly 2 billion active users, Facebook is a great medium for connecting people from all over the world with your business.

In the 13 years since it launched, Facebook has grown from a simple website where college students could keep in touch with a multifaceted web and mobile social platform where anyone can connect with not just their friends and family, but also celebrities, organizations, businesses and more, thanks to the Pages feature.

Considering that Facebook has a wealth of options for any type of organization, it’s a great starting point for your business, regardless of your industry. You can use Facebook to share photos, videos, important company updates and more. Additionally, the site can be more low-maintenance than other social networks. Whether you post several updates a day or only a few a week won’t make much of a difference in what your fans think of you.

Twitter
With Twitter, you can share short text updates (of 140 characters or fewer), along with videos, images, links, polls and more. You can also easily interact with other users by mentioning their usernames in your posts, so Twitter is a great way to quickly connect with people all around the world.

Twitter averages about 328 million active users worldwide and is one of the top 10 websites in the United States. Because of its wide reach, this platform is not only a great way to market your business, but also an effective channel for handling customer service.

If you have interesting content, Twitter is also a great tool for quickly spreading the word. Retweeting and sharing another users’ content is incredibly simple. Hashtags help boost posts, and if a user with a lot of followers retweets you, your content has the potential to go viral. But with Twitter, it’s important to remember to find balance. Don’t simply share your own links or media; instead, make sure you are also sharing a lot of interesting, relevant content from other Twitter users and from around the web so your audience doesn’t think you care only about what your business is doing.

Pinterest

This visually oriented platform allows users to save and display content by “pinning” digital bulletin boards, which can be organized by category. For example, a personal user might have a food board dedicated to pinning recipes, another board dedicated to photography, and so on. The platform also has a series of special types of pins called Rich Pins, which brands can use to add special information to their pins, like product details and even location maps.

Every pin includes an image or video, and like Facebook, it is fairly low-maintenance in terms of post frequency. However, keeping your boards organized and search-friendly can be time-consuming.

It’s also more of a niche network than Facebook or Twitter, so it may not work for everyone. Popular categories on the site are DIY projects, fashion, exercise, beauty, photography, and food. That’s not to say that businesses outside of these categories can’t succeed on the platform, but it does make Pinterest an especially good marketing tool for businesses in those areas.

Instagram

Like Pinterest, Instagram is a visual social media platform based entirely on photo and video posts. The Facebook-owned network has more than 700 million active users, many of whom post about food, art, travel, fashion, and similar subjects. Instagram is distinguished by its unique filters and photo- and video-editing options. It’s important to note that this platform is almost entirely mobile: You can’t take photos or create new posts on the desktop version.

More artistic niches tend to excel on Instagram, and it may not be the best fit for your business, depending on your industry. Regardless, it’s important the person running your account has a good eye for detail and at least basic photography skills so the photos and videos posted to your account are high-quality.

Snapchat

Snapchat is another mobile-only visual social media network that’s known for its disappearing content. The 150 million-plus app users can send videos and photos, available for up to 10 seconds at a time, to one another, or post content to their public Stories, which disappears after 24 hours. Over the past five years, the app has expanded to include chat, messaging, image storage, events, and media content. Now, content can easily be saved and uploaded elsewhere.

Because posts are so temporary, there is less pressure to create super-polished content. You can also see how many and which specific users viewed your story. A small business will most likely utilize the platform for its Stories, but keep in mind that only users who have added you can view the story content. However, once you have an audience, the story feature allows you to easily create story-driven and interactive content.

YouTube

YouTube is a video-sharing platform with over a billion users, where people can view, upload, rate, share and comment on content. Now owned by Google, the site is a huge hub for news and entertainment.

Created over a decade ago, YouTube has gone through numerous changes. For instance, users can now make money from Google AdSense, with the revenue dependent on the number of views on a video.

Many businesses on YouTube have a creative, visual or educational component. The platform is heavily driven by creativity in nature, so it’s important to have a tailored video editor producing content. However, your business doesn’t need a channel to market on the platform. There’s a subculture of vloggers called YouTubers who publish frequent videos and often maintain large audiences. Often, businesses partner with YouTubers for product placement, because these users already have engaged audiences.

Effective social media isn’t about sending out a constant stream of offers and special deals. It’s all about interacting with your clients on their level and communicating with them in a useful, valued way. Social networks are a way to share relevant updates and expertise.

Think carefully about your brand, the service you provide and the way you interact with your clients. Your social media presence should be an extension of that. With a little practice, it will become an integral part of your business – and you’ll wonder how you managed without it.

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