The social-media tools available to small-business owners are proliferating as fast as the information that flows through them. But when it comes to using social media to reach customers—or potential customers—many business owners struggle to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
• Show your personality. “People relate to people more than they relate to brands,” says Paul Chaney, an Internet marketing consultant in Lafayette, La., who suggests using social media to share videos or photos of a company’s founders and staff.
Wade Foster, 26, co-founder of tech startup Zapier.com, in Mountain View, Calif., says he has gotten a positive response from hosting video chats on Google + Hangouts, which allows a user to interact with as many as nine other people in front of an audience. Sometimes the chats include talk about Zapier, which helps business owners sync data between Web apps. Other times they are about his life or news events. “People aren’t used to engaging with the owner of a company on a regular basis,” he says. “We usually get five to 10 people on screen in the course of an hour. They remember that experience and tell others.”
• Target your audience: Derek Capo, 30, chief executive of Next Step China LLC, a Miami-based firm that helps arrange opportunities to study, volunteer and work in China, says he spends 10 to 20 hours a month on LinkedIn, finding and messaging potential customers. Mr. Capo posts messages to 50 LinkedIn “groups” he thinks may be interested in his company’s services—such as teaching and language groups—customizing the message for each audience. He also sends personal messages to students majoring in Mandarin or who mention in their profile a desire to go abroad. He says he typically gets responses from five to 10 potential customers each week.
• Don’t be too promotional. It may seem counterintuitive, but overtly promotional content, such as sweepstakes, special offers and contests, should be only 10% of what your company’s fans and followers see, says Mr. Chaney. About 70% of what you share should be useful information that you bring to the audience, he says, such as compelling conversation, links to articles, blogs and infographics that support your company’s message. The remaining 20% should be other people’s social-media content, such posts and pictures your fans put on your Facebook page or re-tweets of people you follow on Twitter.
• It isn’t all about sales. Social media can be a low-cost way for a small firm to staff up quickly. Hastings Water Works, a Brecksville, Ohio, pool-maintenance and lifeguard-staffing firm, uses Twitter and Facebook to find and hire summer employees. “We used to put ads in the paper and fliers in the high school, but now we can tweet, ‘Here’s a great summer job’ and link to the application page,” says David Hastings, who founded the firm in 1992. New hired employees often keep the buzz going by touting their new jobs on their own social-media profiles.
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