Wow, social media’s reputation with small business really took a roller coaster ride this year. First it was the “2009 Tribalization of Business Survey” by Deloitte, Beeline Labs and the Society for New Communications Research, in which surveyors found that 94% of small businesses plan to increase or maintain their investments in online communities. Great news, right? Well wait, then came the Citibank Small Business survey that Reuters reported on, that said 75% of the small businesses they surveyed have not found social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to be of value in generating leads or revenue for their businesses. Not so good news.

So what are we small business owners and marketers supposed to believe about the effectiveness of social media as a lead generation, revenue driving and super duper marketing tool? Wanna know what I think? I think it’s free – SO WHO CARES what the reports say? Seriously.

OK, I realize that may sound short-sighted and maybe even irresponsible to some of you, but think about it: if someone offered to mention your business to 100 friends absolutely free of charge would you stop them? As long as it wasn’t a negative mention, of course you wouldn’t. I’ll make it even more realistic: what if 100, 1,000 or even 10,000 customers and potential customers asked you to send them something of interest, either about your business, your industry, or even you, on a regular basis and all you had to do is spend 5-15 minutes to prepare that message? Would you do it? I hope your answer is yes. Guess what? That is exactly what social networking is. So then why would you automatically rule out social media as another way to promote your business without giving it the old entrepreneurial try?

With over 200 million people using Facebook alone, social media can’t be ignored as a viable and respectable marketing tool. Yet for many small business owners it’s still a big ole scary unknown. In reality, social media is an investment in your business; it is the fastest, easiest and least expensive way to build a presence and earn trust, but it still takes planning – and time. What harm is there in trying it?

As long as you follow a few simple “rules” there is no harm – it can only help. Here are a few tips to get you started.

1.    Start small – I would suggest starting with two social networking sites you are somewhat familiar with. Got a personal Facebook or LinkedIn profile? Great – set up a page for your business. You already know how to use the site; you already have a few friends, so use that to your benefit. The great thing about being in business for yourself is that your friends want to help you. Recruit them as your first fans. When they become fans of your business page, all of their friends see that – a great way to start building your business network.
2.    Become a fan or a follower – Your job (at first) is to watch and learn. Find companies that you like, especially those that are relevant to your business, and follow them (on Twitter) or become a fan (on Facebook) to learn what they do to stay in touch with their audience. On Twitter, I love @Zappos and @SmallbizMag and on Facebook, Whole Foods. Another tip – search for people or businesses that are most likely to buy your products or services and follow them on Twitter. This will help you get to know them better and they may decide to follow you too!
3.    Don’t Sell – When you do start tweeting or updating your status the biggest mistake you can make is to start selling. No one is on social networking sites to have products and services crammed down their throats. That is the quickest way to alienate your social networking followers. Watch what other companies do – I have never seen Zappos even mention shoes in their tweets and Whole Foods – although they will promote specials and sales – they are usually promoting seasonal recipes or healthy eating tips that I find very interesting and almost always take the time to read. What are they doing? Getting me to know, like and trust them, so that when I do want to buy what they sell, I will think of them.
4.    Be helpful – There is no better way to start growing your social networking community than by helping others. Follow others in your industry (I would stay away from competitors) and repost their blogs. Or help them promote their events by retweeting or posting on your Facebook status if you think your followers will be interested in the content. By doing this you are making friends with others in your industry who may later refer you, and you are offering interesting and educational content to your readers. Voila, you’re a social networker!

That’s it, four simple steps to get you started on your path to social networking success. Remember, social media is not going to take over the world as the only way to promote your business – it’s is just another tool in your toolbox. Used as part of a marketing plan, along with other forms of promotion, it can help you grow your business. Does it take a little time? Of course it does. But if you aren’t spending time growing your business, is your business really growing?

Carolyn Higgins is the President and founder of Fortune Marketing Company. Her personal mission is to help small businesses stop wasting money on advertising and promotions that don’t deliver and help you implement an effective marketing system that will bring you more customers – consistently.

For more information about Carolyn Higgins and Fortune Marketing Company please visit Email or call us at 707.631.6340.

AvatarCarolyn Higgins

Carolyn Higgins is the President and founder of Fortune Marketing Company. Her personal mission is to help small businesses stop wasting money on advertising and promotions that don’t deliver and help business owners implement an effective marketing system that will bring in more customers—consistently. For more information about Fortune Marketing Company visit the Fortune Marketing Company website or blog.