Social media is nothing new; Facebook turned 10 earlier this year, and Twitter is close behind. The big brands adopted early and set the bar high – remember Oreo’s real-time response to the blackout at Super Bowl XLVII or when the airlines came through on social media for their delayed passengers?

With acts like that to follow, many companies wonder about their place in the world of social media. Doing social media well takes time, money & creativity. Even on a smaller, local scale, social media can be overwhelming; from sorting out the best channels and finding the time to dedicate to make it work, to getting & implementing the right strategy to best help your bottom line.

And that’s if your company gets it right…poorly done social media can cost a company dearly – from missed opportunities, to damaged reputations and embarrassing failures; the risks alone can be enough to scare away many companies from engaging through this medium.

However, in the current business climate, social media is a communication channel as ubiquitous as a phone number or a business card; companies are finding they don’t have a choice; their customers are expecting to connect on Facebook or Twitter, and increasingly on channels like Instagram or YouTube.

So how can your company effectively use & benefit from a social media presence, and avoid the pitfalls experienced by so many?

Social media is a conversation

Social media is a conversation; one that is happening right now, all around you. This is a fact that businesses can’t ignore. But businesses can choose how deeply they want to dive into the conversation; you can wade in slowly, or cannonball into the deep end.

Getting Wet: Monitoring Your Reputation

The absolute minimum all businesses of any size need to be doing on social media is monitoring mentions of their company name, their key brands and/or their key people within the organization.

As a communication practice, this is basic risk management; if your company is linked to a developing news story, a poor review or a hacked account, the sooner you know, the sooner you can take steps to mitigate any negative attention and ideally, turn the situation to your advantage.

The same goes for positive mentions; if your customers are singing your praises you’ll want to know so you can capitalize on the sentiments.

There are a variety of tools available to help you monitor your selected terms. Simon Tam lists the top five to start with, over at Huffington Post.

Beyond simple mentions, the basics of brand and corporate name ownership are equally important. Even if you don’t want a Facebook page or Twitter handle, you can be certain you don’t want your competition to own your social media channels for any amount of time. Thankfully, all have processes to protect brand names & provide them to their ‘rightful’ owner. But if your company name is similar to others anywhere in the world, the sooner you reserve your desired social media account name, the more options you’ll have.

Wading in: Listening To Your Audience

Continuing in the same vein as monitoring your business/brand name, the next step for businesses on social media is listening to the conversation. This doesn’t mean always being tuned in to trending topics or viral memes, but it does mean observing keywords that are related to your business, your products & your services.

Using your monitoring tools, set up keywords for related terms – variations of your company name, possible misspellings, and main brands or products. As a starting point, review your website analytics for the search terms that bring visitors to your site. Keep an eye on trending topics or popular hashtags related to your customers. And for added impact, use location-specific searches to follow conversations & users near you.

Swimming Around: Connecting To The Conversation

After getting a feel for the conversations taking place on Social Media, start participating & connecting with your audience. If someone mentions your company, respond with a thanks, an answer to a question or a tidbit of information.

Start sharing information that your customers would like to know; share interesting articles & topical information that relates to your business. Share your latest blog post or information update. And always remember the 3E’s for anything you share: it should be entertaining, or educational, or engaging.

Diving deep: Reach Out For The Win

Proactive communication is the pearl of the social media oyster. Listening, participating and helpfully answering questions builds trust. And a golden rule of thumb is that customers do business with companies they trust.

With your monitoring tools, proactively seek out conversations with customers who are talking about the services/products you offer & connect with them. Provide information and a friendly connection. Be timely. Are your competitors on social media? Listen to conversations involving their services; maybe your business offers better value or more prompt & personal service.

Whether you’re ready to dive into the deep end, or are only dipping your toes in the social media pool, always remember that social media is a conversation, not a billboard. Listen to and talk with your audience & you’ll be on the right track to business-savvy social media.

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