In a nutshell: Here’s how to make social media work for you and your organization.

It’s hard to underestimate the role social media plays in marketing and sales these days — it’s fast, it’s free and it’s everywhere.

For small businesses, the question today isn’t whether you should engage with social media. It’s what are the best ways to engage with potential customers using social media? The following best practices can help you set or sharpen your company’s social media strategy.

Listen

Marketing used to be a one-way street. To get information out, companies would place ads in newspapers, as well as on TV and radio. With the advent of the internet, the medium changed but the techniques didn’t — banner ads were just the new billboards.

Today, things are radically different. Social media has made marketing a two-way street: It’s just as easy for customers to reach out to you as it is for you to reach out to them. Make sure your customers’ comments, complaints and compliments aren’t falling on deaf ears. Even if you’re a small business, you can carve out a little time each day or week to listen and respond to customers.

Choose Your Platforms

Large organizations with endless marketing budgets can set up camp on every social media site. If you’re running a small business, however, you will only have the budget, staff and patience to commit to two or three social media platforms. So, how do you decide which ones would work for your business?

Guy Kawasaki, a well-known marketing specialist in Silicon Valley, recently told the American Marketing Association that he puts the most emphasis on Facebook because it allows companies to target a large number of customers. He says he considers LinkedIn second in importance, and Instagram third.

What works for Kawasaki may not necessarily work for you — after all, if you’re selling home accessories, Pinterest may be a much better social media option than LinkedIn. Before you commit to posting on a particular site,  research where your customers spend their time online, and then gravitate toward those platforms.

Automate

You’ll need a steady stream of posts during the day to keep your audience engaged and delighted, but how can you manage that if you’re a small business? Easy — automate the process. Instead of stopping work every hour or two to focus on social media, spend a little time at the beginning of each week to develop your posts and schedule them through tools such as Hootsuite or Buffer.

When scheduling your posts, keep a calendar open. That way you’ll know if there are specific things you may want to do on a particular day that may resonate with your target audience. You wouldn’t want to miss an arr-portunity to post on Talk Like a Pirate Day, would you? (It’s September 19, matey.)

Remember that your social media calendar isn’t set in stone. One of the biggest benefits of social media is its immediacy. If you need to respond to a post or breaking event, go ahead and do it. Don’t wait.

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