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Social Media – based technologies that let people socially interact with one another online, has changed the way small business communicate with customers and market products and services. Social media lets many businesses — especially small businesses that cannot afford to launch private online communities — interact with customers in a more personal way to build better client relationships.

One thing a small business owner should know is that using social media for marketing is a time-consuming task, and there is definitely a right and wrong way to deal with customers in online social spaces.

While your efforts may be derived from a marketing perspective, your online social interactions with customers needs to be honest, open and provide value to be successful. You need to focus on building relationships more than blasting customers with marketing messages and sales pitches.

The following top 10 social media tips for small business marketing will help you understand how to interact with customers in online social spaces and also guide you in building better, smarter relationships with customers on social networks.

1. Plan Your Social Media Marketing Strategy

As with any small business marketing campaign or business strategy, you have to create a plan and stick to it in order to be successful. Outline the goals and the steps you will take — in addition to the tools you will need — to meet your marketing objectives.

Your plan should outline how your small business will integrate social media marketing into existing marketing strategies. Some social media-specific issues you will need to think about include:

Delegating the daily tasks and updates to an employee with marketing and social media experience

Deciding on whom within your organization will create profiles and accounts and which individuals will have access to the accounts

Choosing tools that will help automate the social media marketing process and finding social analytictools to help you track success

Reviewing your current small business marketing strategies and deciding where an expansion into social media will be the most beneficial

2. Find Your Customers

With so many social networking platforms available to consumers, it can be difficult to choose a social network for your business to use. Before you randomly log on to Twitter or Facebook to start your small business marketing campaign, research to find out where your customers already congregate online.

Existing communities of clients will have formed the basics of the “social glue” that holds online relationships together. It takes less time and effort to join customers where they are, compared to creating multiple profiles and accounts in the hopes that customers will find you.

3. Schedule Social Time

Once you become a social resource for customers you have to stick with it and be there on a regular and frequent basis. Using social networks is time consuming, so schedule social time for yourself and your marketing staff.

You want to have enough time each day to monitor conversations, converse with customers, and to send out new messages. Splitting the time up throughout the day will be a benefit as it shows customers you care enough to check back and respond quickly.

4. Be Authentic and Human

People are more likely to create relationships with other people more so than with businesses. You can encourage customers if you use a “human” voice — not a corporate presence — when connecting in social spaces. You can do a few simple things like show a picture instead of a business logo on your profile, and assign one or two people within your small business to be your social voice.

Another big part of being human on a social network that businesses often find challenging is to “own up” to customers in public when they make a mistake or someone posts criticism. If a customer complains about your shipping, don’t ignore it or follow-up outside the social network. Keep the conversation public; drop the corporate tone and converse with the customer on a personal level.

5. Be an Expert

One of the best ways for a small business to interact with customers is to be an expert in social spaces. By joining existing communities where your customers are, you can easily insert yourself into the community by being a voice of expert advice.

For example if your small business is plumbing hardware, find those online social communities on Facebook, Twitter discussion forums and blogs and start answering questions and offering advice. Remember to let people know you are a business owner — never pretend to be “just another consumer” when you participate in social discussions.

6. Learn to Listen

It’s easy to fall into the “broadcast trap” where you spend too much time talking about how great your products are or how fabulous this week’s sale is. In a social network you have to stop broadcasting and listen to what your customers have to say.

People use social networks to converse, and the best way to build strong a social relationship with a client is to be a “friend” who can listen.

7. Be Social

A small business also needs to demonstrate good conversation skills — after all responding to people is the best way to show you are listening. The point of a social network is to converse, and customers will get bored very quickly if you don’t participate in the social flow.

You can demonstrate good listening skills and boost participation by responding directly to questions and comments in a timely fashion. Just like an offline conversation, you should also ask for opinions and direct questions to customers within your social group to make them feel valuable.

8. Respond Often

Successful social media marketing depends on your own ability to respond to clients in a timely fashion. You want to show customers that you are a “reliable friend,” so stay active and participate in all conversations related to your company or area of expertise.

If you see new questions or comments, be sure to answer immediately. This is also a great way to “be social” by asking questions back to the customers to keep the conversation going.

9. Provide Value

You’ll find that just your own conversation and participation is not enough to keep a continued interest in your social network, especially if you choose to create your own community instead of joining an existing one.

There has to be value in the interaction for people, and you will need to provide the reason for people to stay and participate in your social network. You have converse with customers on a regular basis, but you also need to provide ways for customers to connect and befriend each other to firmly establish your social community as a popular online destination.

10. Offer Exclusivity

Your social network should not just be about deals, but there is nothing wrong with making your fans, friends and followers feel special. One way to do this is to offer rewards or promotions exclusively to social networking customers.

Keep in mind that promotions are an immediate call-to-action, and while you may have short-term success it doesn’t mean you will attract quality social customers. Instead of on-off deals or coupons you can try a rewards-type program where only your best advocates and best social customers qualify for the reward.

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