A social media presence is no longer an optional part of running a small business; it's an absolute necessity.
Facebook, Instagram and other popular forums are as important, if not more so, to a company's marketing as is television ads and sponsoring local events. But that's still a lesson some small-business owners are learning.
Half of small-business owners have a Facebook page, according to the CNBC/Survey Monkey Small Business Survey. The survey, conducted in April, gathered the findings from more than 2,000 small-business owners across the country in a variety of industries. It revealed that while 40 percent use social media to communicate with potential customers, just 21 percent advertise their companies on social media.
Those numbers are increasing as these sites become a bigger part of the general public's life (Facebook, for example, recently announced it had hit 2 billion users). If you're running a small business and are on (or joining) Facebook and other social networks, there are a number of ways to gain an edge on the competition — and boost your bottom line.
Because social media is a relatively new phenomenon, many companies — especially small businesses — look to their youngest employees to take care of their presence on those sites. While the logic makes sense on paper (since the most active users of social media are millennials), it overlooks the value of marketing experience.
"Businesses need to understand this is serious marketing; this is serious brand projection," says Glen Gilmore, a professor at Rutgers University School of Business and principal of the social media marketing firm Gilmore Business Network. "It requires thoughtful engagement so that what they're doing [is] an asset for the business."
This seems to go without saying, but there's a difference between marketing on social media and traditional marketing. Don't just push your brand or product. Instead, share your passion about your field and be creative in how you do so. Social media is about talking with your customers, not to them.
"Social media is a conversation," says Gilmore. "You don't interrupt conversations; you try to figure out how you can add value to them."
In a world where we all carry a high-end camera and video camera with us at all times via our smartphones, it's tempting to post regularly to Facebook and Instagram. That's a good idea for business owners, but be very choosy about the shots you put up there. And definitely learn about the best angles and how to realize what's in the background of pictures.
"There is a time and place for that instant gratification, behind the scenes, not well-produced video or photo, but as an overall rule, you need to learn how to use a camera and you need to learn how to edit," says Laura Bell Greeno, chief marketing officer for Webscout. "The editing will make all the difference in how it's seen and absorbed by the audience."
An easy trap in any form of social media is to obsess over how many followers your company's page or account might have. The truth is, that's not important.
What is important is how engaged your followers are. Experts concur it's better to have a smaller number of people who actually take advantage of your products or services than a large group of people who glance at your updates as they scroll through their feed. Ultimately, decide if you are more interested in garnering attention or people buying your product or service.
"It's not about the number of followers," says Gilmore. "It's about whether that small or large community is relevant and engaged. That's what differentiates celebrity and influence."
The best marketing for your business doesn't come from you, it comes from your customers. Just like word of mouth is more powerful than any commercial or ad you might place, user-generated content can have more impact than anything you come up with.
Did a customer make a flattering meme about your company or send an unsolicited testimonial? Highlight that on social media. It's not only more genuine, it underscores the more important thing about Facebook, Instagram and the like — it's an open conversation in which anyone is welcome to participate.
While all social media platforms are about sharing, each has an area of specialization. Facebook offers the opportunity for more in-depth content, for example, but hashtags have very little impact. Instagram, meanwhile, is about telling stories through photos, and hashtags are critical for discovery. Twitter, while less important, is about concise communication.
Too many businesses regurgitate the spec sheet of their product or feature list of their service and declare it content. But there's no incentive for potential customers to read that — and if they do, they won't be engaged. Foster, instead, a conversation that's built around your industry or culture.
A restaurant, for example, could talk about the benefits of locally sourced, sustainable food or offer recipes for some of its dishes. Retail shops can run gift guides during holiday and other periods.
"In social media, we look for common values that are important to us," says Gilmore. "It takes some businesses out of their comfort zone to realize they have to share the essence of their business and what they're about."
While some businesses might hesitate when it comes to paying for better placement on Facebook, it can have some notable benefits. The targeting that the site can offer is tremendously precise — letting you choose the age and geographic range of people who will see your paid ads, which could dramatically improve the response rate. First, see what's resonating with followers, then broadcast that to a wider spectrum of people.
"Don't be afraid to advertise," says Greeno. "Don't be afraid to spend money on Facebook. People might say they don't know where to start, but anyone can go in and spend $10 for the week and see what happens."
When creating web pages, many small businesses spend time and money on search engine optimization to ensure they rank high on Google and similar sites. But as they build their social media presence, they often forget that.
People search for what interests them on a variety of platforms, so be aware of the keywords you use when writing your business description or photo captions. If you're using a hashtag-friendly social media site like Instagram or Twitter, choose them carefully.
While you might not have the budget to hire a consultant to plan out your social media strategy, that doesn't mean you can't tap into their expertise from time to time. After you've tried a few things out, you might be able to hire someone for even an hour or so to bounce questions off of them and hone your strategy.
"Ideally, you can do that once a quarter, because you're going to learn new things each month or even each week," says Greeno.
— By Chris Morris, special to CNBC.com