Think back to mid-2007. Facebook was already an established social media platform with 30 million users, but its user base was almost exclusively consumer. Very few businesses had made the connection between Facebook and business promotion and, even if they had, Facebook didn’t yet have the facility for them to take advantage of the opportunities presented.
Then, Facebook introduced Pages.
Suddenly the door was open to companies and brands – they could set up their own profiles, promote their products and interact with their fans easily.
At a similar time, Twitter was also slowly taking off, and journalists began speculating about what would be the ‘next big thing’ in social media.
But the migration to social promotion wasn’t instantaneous. Indeed many businesses sat back waiting for others to make the first move.
Nobody wanted to be the company that tried and failed in front of millions – they feared a PR disaster.
Then came a period in which some large companies seemed to be making a success of social media.
They were building followings on Facebook, and had signed on to promote themselves through Twitter.
Despite this, others were still floundering in the dark. They found themselves jumping on a bandwagon, conscious that social media – when used correctly – could be an excellent PR tool. The problem was, they weren't really aware of what ‘correctly’ entailed.
For businesses of all sizes, mastering social media has been a long, winding road – with those that tried and failed falling by the wayside.
Now, it seems, we have reached an age of social media maturity – or at least adolescence.
The ‘whys?', ‘whats?' and ‘hows?' of social media have been written down, and we recognise that it is not a one-size fits all solution; the way in which Coca-Cola benefits from Twitter is probably very different from a tech start-up or a local accounting firm.
Even for small businesses – or start-ups looking to grow – the platforms which offer the most benefit vary. At present, there are three principal benefits that arise from successful social media campaigns:
1. Search engine position
Many people think that the greater a business’ online and social media presence, the higher its search position will be. In fact, the best way to move up the search pages is by employing SEO.
SEO is used to persuade Google and other search engines of a business’ importance. Once achieved, the business’ website will move up the search engine results page (SERP).
One way you can convince Google that your website is important is to generate inbound ‘DoFollow’ links – a DoFollow link lets the search engine companies follow the links it discovers back to your website.
These links can be created using some social media platforms, but not all. Most social platforms only offer NoFollow links, for example Flickr, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.
While NoFollow links probably have some benefit for SEO (no one knows Google’s exact formula for deciding a page’s search position) they’re influence is undoubtedly smaller.
The key to effective blogging is the use of fresh, compelling, and regularly updated content – including appropriate keywords that can be chosen using the Google Keyword Checker.
If a blog offers something that no other does, it’s far more likely to gain readers and content sharers.
You should also encourage the sharing of content by including buttons to other social platforms, and bookmarking sites on your website; many of the bookmarking sites, such as Diggit, do offer DoFollow links.
But DoFollow links are just one way to better SEO – just because Twitter/Facebook don’t offer these, doesn't mean their potential for content proliferation shouldn’t be ignored. If engaging blog content is shared on these sites, it will still increase the traffic to your site and that will also affect search engine position.
2. Brand awareness
Building a company brand is about reinforcing the positive messages behind a business and about making that brand recognisable.
Sites like Quroa, Diggit and LinkedIn are not ideal for this, because they offer limited opportunity for the business to communicate directly with its customers.
On the other hand, Twitter lets users send public messages to a company, as does Facebook.
Through Facebook and Twitter customers can discuss products or customer service, they can respond to competitions, share images and links, or publically praise a business.
Conversely, feedback isn’t always positive. Having a crisis communications plan in place can help social media managers deal with problems should they arise.
If a crisis isn’t managed properly online, it will be noticed – the old adage that ‘any press is good press’ simply isn’t true – as was made obvious by a recent blog about the Tesco Horsemeat scandal.
Both Twitter and Facebook are fantastic for smaller companies hoping to develop a fan base and build their brand.
Twitter, in particular, is ideal for spreading messages virally, so it’s important that the business doesn’t just fill its feeds with self-promotional content. Observational or humorous tweets/statuses are far more likely to be shared.
Additionally, YouTube is an excellent way to spread business messaging. People much prefer to watch an entertaining one-minute video explaining a new product/service than read a 1,000 word press release.
3. Thought leadership
The purpose of thought leadership – where a company attempts to provide answers to the questions asked by their customer base – is to help those involved in the business decision-making process. By becoming a part of the conversation at an early stage, customers get to know and trust a business.
Twitter and Facebook are not ideal for this purpose due to the limited word counts allowed, and while blogging provides an opportunity to express opinions in depth and demonstrate expertise, there is a risk is that readers will see an agenda behind the subject matter – especially if hosted on the company's website.
Arguably, the best platform for thought leadership is LinkedIn.
At its most basic, LinkedIn helps by giving companies and their employees the chance to build informative profiles, stating their areas of expertise, sharing links to business stories of interest, and starting polls on topics that are relevant to their customer’s community.
Thought leaders can also search for groups frequented by their intended audience. Within these, they can join in on-going debates, pose or answer questions, and state opinions.
Growing a person/company’s reputation on LinkedIn can be time consuming.
Posting in one single group is unlikely to have a marked impact on their status as a thought leader, but continual – useful – contributions will lead to professional introductions, a growing contact list and new business leads.
LinkedIn isn’t the only social platform that can help build thought leadership; Quora (a question and answer platform) and Squidoo (where pages can be created on subjects of interest) can be used as a second-line of attack.
Planning is key:
As social media has matured, so too has our understanding of how it can be used to benefit business.
But even with this knowledge it can be hard to correctly manage social media. It requires a huge commitment of time, money and personnel.
To maximise its benefits, a business should have a comprehensive social media plan in place – something that clearly states what it hopes to accomplish, and which social media tools will be used to help.
By doing this the business can turn its social media efforts into social media success.