Facebook. Twitter. Flickr. Yelp. Delicious. StumbleUpon. The world of social media is constantly evolving, leaving many small businesses confused or intimidated.
They wonder if and how social media relate to their business, how they'll find time to squeeze the new technology into an already busy schedule and what they can actually expect to get out of it.
Lesson No. 1: If your business isn't broken, don't fix it, says John Carson, a social media advocate.
"Don't feel you have to be in it because everyone else is," he said.
On the other hand, social media can make a successful business even more successful — if used properly.
Before jumping in, look at what your competitors are doing and follow them for at least a couple of months, he said. See what works — and what doesn't — and then come up with a strategy. Find the "ambassadors" in your company and get them on board, but try to avoid forcing anyone into it.
"The great thing about social media is there are no set rules," said Carson. "You can break rules. If it's working for you, great. It's not about the amount of polish you have or the number of people you follow, it's about whether you're getting results from what you're doing."
And everyone has a different view of success, whether it's more sales or more people retweeting your links.
"Everyone always talks about this holy grail of return-on-investment," said Carson. "But what do you want to get out of social media? That's the first question you should ask yourself."
Carson recommends finding 15 minutes a day (five minutes, three times a day) to spend on social media — maybe posting a tweet, perhaps networking on LinkedIn. If you delve more deeply into social media, you may increase that amount of time.
"It's better to have one excellent tweet a week than five crappy ones," he said. "It's quality and not quantity in this business. Sometimes less is more."
And you have to crawl before you walk, said Leona Hobbs, vice-president of Social Media Group, a consulting firm.
For a small business that does loyalty marketing — such as sending birthday cards to customers — that can be extended to a Facebook page or Twitter account. It's also more immediate and shareable than a quarterly newsletter, she said.
Ask the customer
Find out what your customers want by asking them, There are free tools, such as SurveyMonkey, that allow you to send out online surveys to customers.
It's important to figure out what's best for the market you serve and how it fits into your overall business strategy, said Stuart Crawford, senior adviser with Ulistic, a social media consulting firm. Otherwise, you may spend time and effort putting together a Facebook fan page and get discouraged when nothing happens.
"If you're selling wind-generated turbines, Twitter may not be the best tool for customer attraction, though it may be a good research tool," he said.
And be committed to keeping your chosen strategy updated. If you write a blog, for example, try to write something at least every week or two (it doesn't have to be daily).
"Nothing says you don't care about your business like a stale blog," said Crawford.
The No. 1 reason people follow a brand on Facebook or Twitter is for coupons, added Hobbs. "They want the deals. It's basic marketing," she said.
Small businesses may want to consider emerging areas of social media, such as digital marketing through location-based services. These services are accessible on a person's mobile device, based on the geographic position of that device (where to find the nearest banking machine or sushi restaurant, for example).
Small businesses have an opportunity to take advantage of these tools, most of which are free, Hobbs said.
Facebook Places and Foursquare offer location-based services, while Twitter and Yelp have location-based check-in features. Once a small business "claims" and validates their location, they can then set up promotions and special deals for customers.
Another emerging area is "social coupons," offered by companies such as Groupon, LivingSocial and TeamSave. These allow a small business to offer promotions. People sign up for the deal, which is shareable and sociable.
"It's a different way to engage people around coupons and reward loyal people who are going to come back and give you business again," said Hobbs, adding that it can also help a small business acquire new customers.
Another piece of the puzzle is setting up key word searches so you know when people are talking about you online, said Hobbs. Big companies pay big dollars for reputation management services, but smaller businesses can use free tools like Google Analytics to monitor their brand.
"If you have an unhappy customer, you can engage them and resolve it right away, then you turn that negative experience into a neutral or positive experience," said Hobbs. "If someone has an axe to grind, if you don't go on the record, it just stands out there tarnishing your reputation."
There are reasons for caution with social media, which is why companies should come up with a strategy before jumping in.
"Maybe you make an erroneous tweet about a competitor because you think it's a joke," Carson said. "That gets picked up and slammed. It can easily turn around."
Be aware that once something is out there on the web, you can't take it back. It's always going to be on a server somewhere. So if you make a mistake, own up.
"People know you've done it, so why lie?" said Carson. "Admit you've made a mistake — that gives you much more respect. Trying to spin a mistake won't fly, these days."
Keep in mind that success with social media doesn't happen overnight, he added, and that it can take six months to a year to get established.
"All those people with half a million followers, they started with five people too."