Are you eager to exploit the power of social media to build your business, but confused about how to start? 

Join the club.

The buzz around this apparently inexpensive, popular way to market yourself has certainly defied anyone who thought it was a flavor-of-the-month. Look at how all the businesses that tout their social presence.  Requests to follow on Twitter or visit Facebook are ubiquitous on companies’ websites.  It appears social media is golden, a beautiful, free, new-age, exciting way to engage with customers and boost revenue, and everyone want to get in the game.   

From what I hear, it’s not so cut-and-dried.

In the past year I’ve written two columns about this particular on-line marketing method.  My curiosity was piqued again recently when I saw an article in Advertising Age magazine titled "Home Depot’s Social-Media Strategy Pays Off". 

The article describes how the company has enlisted about 30 sales associates in Chicago, Boston, Atlanta and Orange County, Calif., to take on social media duties two days a week.  The rest of the week they’re on the warehouse floor, doing their regular jobs. 

The VP of corporate affairs describes the program as a success, noting the group has created 6,000 posts and hundreds of videos that have been viewed in more than 30 countries, but he is also quoted saying, "You haven't seen us take a big swing from an investment standpoint; we're utilizing the resources we have."

If a multimillion-dollar concern such as Home Depot is dipping a toe in the water, with a handful of employees working just part-time on social media, why would small entrepreneurs, with far fewer resources, plunge in head first?

I decided to ask.  I posted a question on Twitter last week, asking for opinions on the usefulness of social media for business purposes.   What a divergence of opinion I received:

·        "Pretty much useless overall"  @RickCarroll 

·        "I’ve learned so much for my business through social media!" @Lucas_Lilley 

·        "Facebook was massive for me, then Facebook took away my ability to promote and now it’s more and more of a waste." @2waymonologues 

·        "Increased revenue!  And lots of friendships! J " @KEYLIMEclothing

One of the social media fans that tweeted back was Carla Howatt, a communications consultant just outside of Edmonton.  When she set herself up in business two years ago, she had no plan to line up clients using on-line marketing.  She figured she’d try traditional methods.

"People said, ‘You have to go Chamber of Commerce meetings, you should do this old boys’ network type of thing’.  And I did that," says the mother of four.  "I went to meetings.  I networked.  But didn’t really go anywhere.  Most people looked at me and said ‘you do what?’  They didn’t seem to understand my business."

Howatt was surprised when she began to get work inquiries from Twitter.  She’d set up an account prior to launching her business, out of personal curiosity, and wasn’t even tweeting anything related to her business.  She had, however, put her new company’s website on her Twitter profile.

"I got direct mail from people saying they’d checked out my profile page and gone to my website," she says.  "And now they wanted to see if I could come meet with them to chat about a project they had coming up."

Today she has about ten regular clients, a thriving business focussed primarily on non-profit groups, and attributes almost all of her success to social media. 

"Not all my business has come directly from Twitter, but almost all of it is indirectly from Twitter," she says, sounding almost amazed.

This is a happy example of what social media can do – even accidentally – for an entrepreneur.   And there are plenty of success stories.  But that’s just part of the picture.

"There’s confusion and growing disappointment," says Jonathan Huth, a partner in a Toronto-based digital marketing firm that serves both large and small clients.  

 "The feeling is ‘I built my Facebook page but now what?  I’m not getting any sales from it.’"

I spoke to Huth for my first column on this subject, over a year ago.   At that point, he told me loads of companies were eager to get on board the social media train.  A year later, he says many have indeed jumped on, creating Facebook pages, getting their LinkedIn profile out there, signing up for Twitter, and starting to tweet. 

"I just met with a potential client who said, ‘We’ve ticked all the boxes, we have all our social media properties up, but other than our friends and family, no-one is liking us or following us’.  There’s a missing piece," says Huth. 

The missing piece, as Huth sees it, is content.  Without relevant, useful, or even entertaining material – be it news, blogs, videos, or product information – customers won’t engage with a business’ social media efforts.

But honestly – what small business person has time to create all that type of content!?  That’s what we do at CBC, and it takes a large number of people working full-time!  How can an entrepreneur who actually has to run their own small business day to day, ever hope to create the type of content that will win him or her a large following on social media?  For many, the prospect must be daunting and overwhelming.

One step at a time, say Jonathan Huth and Carla Howatt.  They both told me the first step is listening.  Sign up for Twitter – forget about tweeting for now – and just see what you find.  Use the search bar to enter your company name or product, and see if anyone has mentioned you in a tweet.  Enter your product category, your industry, your competitors’ names, maybe even your home town, and Twitter will show you who’s using those words in a tweet.  

Of course you’ll see a number of useless tweets, but you may also find some fascinating comments.  Then you can ‘follow’ whoever is posting that relevant material, so you’ll get all their tweets.  Follow as many as you like – it’s all free. 

The point is, a conversation is already going on out there in cyber-space – maybe about you.  It costs nothing to be part of it, and you could learn a lot.

"Listening is the gateway drug," jokes Howatt.  She found that’s how clients get hooked on social media. Once they enter discover this venue where real people are talking, offering real opinions and feelings, they join the ‘community’. The learn the etiquette, the lingo, and  become part of the conversation.  Before long they start to get ideas about how to use social media to build their businesses.

There are enough success stories out there that it’s worth a try. Just be careful you don’t enter any of your vices in the search bar – you could soon have another one.  One of the risks of social media is that it IS addictive, and not always productive!