Wielded wisely, social media can help a growing business boost brand awareness, improve customer relations, garner market research, even bolster sales. As the number of people using social media rises, marketing experts say it's essential for even the smallest of companies to consider diving in.
"Everybody should take a look at it," says Dan Galbraith, owner of marketing support company Solutionist and a National Small Business Association board member.
"Whether they chose to jump into social media or not is a question that only they can answer," he says, but all firms should at least explore how social media could work for them.
It just takes a few clicks to potentiality connect with thousands of business contacts and customers, he says. In addition to networking, business owners can use social media to glean useful insights by reading comments made by customers, industry experts, even competitors.
"There's a lot of good information floating out there," he says.
A time investment
It takes dedication to achieve social-media success.
"The common misconception about social media is that it's free," says Morgan. "Facebook and Twitter accounts are free, but for small business owners in particular, time comes at a premium."
To keep from feeling overwhelmed, business owners should decide how much time they can dedicate to this burgeoning arena, says Galbraith. Some may need to hire social-media help.
Either way, business owners should first set goals, he says. For instance, an owner might want to increase store traffic by 20 percent by offering coupons via Facebook or another social-media site. Or a business-to-business company could plan to reconnect with 10 former clients and re-establish solid relationships in the next three months.
The goals should be clear-cut, but as many business owners have learned, the initial strategies might have to change.
"Our social-media education is ongoing and is purely trial and error," says Pawleys Island, S.C., entrepreneur Brian Henry, who started selling pimento cheese with his wife, Sassy, in 2006.
In 2009, they used social media to post photos of themselves and their Palmetto Cheese-branded spreads, which blend cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, cream cheese and sweet pimento peppers with spices and ingredients such as jalapeños or bacon.
"While this was a great place for us to start, it didn't bring in a lot of followers, because it wasn't creating a dialogue," says Brian.
Since then, they've ramped up their digital interactions. They post customer recipes on their Facebook and Twitter profiles, offer trivia contests and T-shirt give-aways, and answer questions on how to buy, store and serve the cheese.
As followers increased, so did sales. When the Henrys first began their social-media outreach in 2009, they sold 547,000 containers of Palmetto Cheese. In 2011, they sold 2.1 million.
Of course, that sales boost wasn't brought on by social media alone. But the nearly 22,000 people who "like" the Palmetto Cheese Facebook page— and spread word of the brand to their friends — have helped sales. "Once we started truly interacting with our customers and created a community, we began to see an increase in interest and customers," Brian says.
While marketing experts advocate joining the social-media conversation, most say that doing it poorly — such as combining personal and professional updates or not posting information consistently — is worse than not doing it at all.
"Consumers won't stick around, and you won't get much traction," says Morgan.
There are some basic social media tenets to keep in mind, says Sabina Ptacin, co-founder of 'Preneur, which provides tools and resources for small businesses.
She first suggests that business owners "baby step it out," to see what feels comfortable to them and is do-able. Those who can't contribute on a daily basis might want to hold off on creating a public profile.
"You can't post once a week and think it's going to make an impact," she says. "You need to constantly be contributing, definitely every day."
She encourages new entrants to start conversations by posting updates, photos and interesting industry news, as well as questions for followers. The queries can be simple, such as asking for feedback on a new product or for opinions on industry news.
"Do not worry if no one responds," she says. "It doesn't mean that no one likes you, or you're bad at Twitter."
If the questions are authentic and interesting, they will eventually get replies, she says.
And no matter what, don't aggressively push a product or service, she says. That could scare away potential followers.
She counsels social media users to think of it as circulating during a cocktail party.
"I always tell people to pretend that they're at a party and (act) how they would behave," she says. "No one wants to talk to the person who is always talking about themselves. … They want you to ask them questions and engage in conversations."