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A must for businesses or just a bunch of hype?

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The vast majority of Canadians walk around daily with more computing power in their pocket than that which sent mankind to the moon in 1969. That’s a powerful thought, and personal access to incredible technology isn’t going anywhere. It was only a decade ago that Apple revolutionized the mobile industry through its release of the iPhone, yet the smartphone has completely permeated daily life, and its ubiquitous presence significantly shapes our everyday behaviour. Today’s consumers spend hours each day staring at their screens, much of the time perusing various social media platforms.

Is social media valuable for businesses or is it all just a bunch of hype? If you came of age prior to the digital era, it can be challenging to determine whether you should incorporate social media into your company’s digital marketing strategy, and if so, how to do so effectively.

First things first, social media is not magic. Merely setting up a Twitter or Facebook account will not automatically bring you loads of new clients or make your product fly off the shelf. But many types of businesses can leverage a well thought out and carefully implemented social media strategy into an increased bottom line.

First, know your audience and your target market. Are your potential customers and clients on social media? Can you develop and execute a strategy to reach them, and build and gain trust and appreciation? For B2C (business-to-consumer) businesses, the answer to these questions is likely to be yes, particularly in Calgary, Canada’s youngest city. If you’re in the business of selling consumer goods to millennials, you would be foolish to ignore social media as a marketing channel. For B2B (business-to-business) businesses, though, or businesses with an older target market, this becomes a more difficult analysis. If you sell windows to home manufacturers, or your ideal B2C consumer is an octogenarian in a nursing home, social may not actually have a useful place in your marketing mix.

An astonishing number of businesses simply jump into the social media world because they think it’s the thing to do. They fail to post relevant content in such a way as to attract and keep an audience, then lose momentum and essentially abandon their platforms after a few months, concluding that social media is an ineffective marketing channel and not worth the time and effort.

Sarah Kirkpatrick, owner of Jumping Elephant, a Calgary digital marketing company, understands the challenges business owners may have with respect to navigating the social media world. She advises those seeking guidance to choose an experienced professional. You get what you pay for, Kirkpatrick says, warning that the social media industry has taken off so substantially in recent years that there are a lot of “consultants” out there who have no or limited expertise. A background in traditional and digital marketing and formal education in language or journalism are all desirable. And of course, demonstrated results in the social media world are essential.

Kirkpatrick highlights the importance of approaching social as you would any other endeavour. “Just the same as you wouldn’t start a business without doing preliminary research, you shouldn’t start a social media campaign without first having a strategy,” she says. Taking time to flesh out an overarching strategy prior to starting to develop and post content or further content can save a lot of time later on, and this is something a professional can help with.

Kirkpatrick recommends that at least 10 per cent of a marketing budget be allocated to digital. She also suggests that businesses that manage their own accounts focus on only one or two platforms, as it is far more effective to manage fewer platforms well. Kirkpatrick points out that many of today’s consumers, particularly younger customers, don’t use the phone to contact businesses. Rather, they connect through companies’ social media accounts. It’s essential to ensure that you are devoting enough time and attention to social that you can respond to each and every inquiry in real time and don’t end up ignoring certain platforms.

The appropriate platform(s) depends on your company, your industry, the resources available to you, and the profile of your ideal customer, says business owner Kara Rohl. Rohl leveraged the experience she gained from her previous career at a digital communications agency when launching her own Calgary-based photography business. The vast majority of her marketing is done via Instagram and, of course, word of mouth from satisfied clients. Rohl appreciates that social is no or low cost, however “free” is not “easy.” She has been successful because she devotes a lot of time and attention to social and spends a significant portion of each day managing her accounts and connecting with potential customers. As such, her business has grown exponentially.

It’s important to understand social is not just about pushing ads at your target audience, particularly if you are a service provider or a B2B business. It’s about building your reputation, developing and keeping an audience, connecting with them, and providing them with valuable, timely, enjoyable and well thought out content. If you do it well, chances are good you will be front-of-mind when someone in your audience is looking for a business in your industry. If you do not, then social will not work for you.

Good content is crucial, and this of course includes not only photos but also blog posts, articles and video, depending on the platform. Kirkpatrick emphasizes that knowing what kind of content is being featured by your platform(s) at any given time can help you get in front of your demographic. For instance, live video is currently being featured by Facebook, thus if you produce live videos, your content will be seen by a wider audience. Blogging, also, is particularly effective for businesses.

How do you know if it’s working? Literally hundreds of management tools exist to create content, plan and schedule posts, and measure your content’s reach and performance. Planoly, Buffer and of course Hootsuite are a few popular choices, and platforms have their own analytic tools as well. But translating analytics into whether or not you have garnered increased sales is often less scientific.

Brandon Perlman has extensive experience with social management tools. He founded the Gramlist, a B2B firm that blends the most sophisticated data and analytics with a human touch to curate social influencers for companies ranging from small organizations to Fortune 500 firms. “At the end of the day, you want awareness and consideration, and this can be difficult to measure,” he says. “If five years ago, you bought an ad in the local paper, and it moved the needle for you, now you’re looking to translate that into social.”

Professionals say that as with traditional marketing channels, a certain degree of trial and error is inevitable. Tried-and-true techniques such as offering coupons and specials via social and tracking uptake can provide guidance as to whether you’re on the right course.

Done right, social can have a huge impact, but it takes strategic thinking, analysis and commitment to get it right. You don’t need a Facebook, Instagram or Twitter account, and it’s easy to dismiss social as a kids’ game. But if a lot of your potential clients and customers spend significant time on social media, and you’re ready to commit the time and resources to actively and consistently managing your account(s), before dismissing the idea of social outright, it’s wise to analyze whether an appropriate social strategy could help your bottom line. Otherwise, you, too may dabble in it, and reach the conclusion that the hype is overblown.

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