Your 12-step guide to building your online community of customers

Words You Can Use Limited
Social media is all about your relationships with customers – not the hard sell

For most small businesses, an online presence is vital.

Most have websites, most use some form of social media to promote their products or services. A survey of more than 300 UK business owners by Hiscox showed that in 2011, 57 per cent of the small businesses used social media to support their marketing drives. There has been an explosion in social media use by firms since then, and social media companies expect that figure to grow even more in the next year.

Changing the way you think about social media, though, might be the key to ensuring one-hit customers are transformed into repeat business.

Instead of thinking of online as a way of reeling in new fish, why not start thinking of it as a great way of building your own community?

Business is all about relationships. In this era of apps, smartphones and tablets, the best way of gaining new business is still by word of mouth, by personal recommendation. The only real difference from previous decades is the way that word of mouth is spread.

Here are a few key ways to do that:

  1. Find out who your customers are and where they hang out.

Are you selling a product or service directly to the public? Do you service other businesses?

Before you start to look at an online community strategy, it’s key to know your ideal customer. Build up a profile of them – their age, location, their problems, what they need, how they use the internet, which social media sites they are likely to use.

  1. Social media is all about building a community.

If you post three times a day on Twitter asking people to buy your product, that’s a sure-fire way of losing followers and alienating people. Social media is just that – social. The best business users understand that, and understand that building a community has great advantages. Play the long game. It’s all about offering your potential customers the chance to exchange good word of mouth about your business, and to see you as their first port of call in your field.

  1. Offer your social media followers something they can share.

Share-ability is the way to get that word of mouth out there. Give your followers content they can use from your field of expertise, give them something fun and educational. Use video and pictures – they will get you extra shares, and help transform that into more social media followers. Video and still pictures have been proven to gain more engagements for tweets, and more likes and shares on Facebook.

4.   Blog.

Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I? But it’s a fantastic way of reaching out to potential customers and bringing them into your online fold. Blog about your expertise, your experience in setting up a small business, key trends in your field. Not a writer? Consider out-sourcing your blog to someone who is, someone you can brief and who can turn around polished posts for you. Then, of course, share those posts on a widget on your website. That will freshen your web content regularly, something Google spiders and other website crawlers love, and help boost your visibility and page ranking. Share your blog posts on social media.

  1. Selling directly to the public? Don’t forget Facebook pages.

Facebook is still one of the most powerful ways to connect with a group of people – and it can give you valuable information about where your customers are, what their social networks are like, and what interests them. Setting up a Facebook page for your business is a great way of letting your core audience know what you’re doing, and allowing them to give you feedback. Facebook had 31 million UK users in 2014, the largest age group being the 25 to 34-year-olds at just under 26 per cent. It’s still the largest single concentration of users on any social media platform. 89 per cent of businesses have a Facebook presence, according to UK firm Real Business Rescue.

  1. Use your Twitter Analytics.

All your tweets will have a link to your analytics page on the bottom. If you’ve never used it, take a look. Twitter gives you lots of information about who your followers are, their gender, what interests them. It will also show you which tweets have engaged your followers. There were 15 million Twitter users in the UK in 2014, and 80 per cent of those used mobile devices to view tweets. 89 per cent of businesses have a Twitter presence, says Real Business Rescue.

  1. Pick your social media presence to suit your customer base.

If you run a food business, for example, images are important to your word of mouth. Sharing mouth-watering pictures of your latest product would be an excellent way of ensuring share-ability. You should, therefore, be on image-led sites like Instagram (150 million users worldwide) and Pinterest (which has two million UK users), as well as Twitter, Google+ (300 million users worldwide) and Facebook. A business based on words or analysis would do well to have a blog on WordPress (126 million visitors per month, more than 300 posts per minute) or Blogger (with more than 670,000 blogs currently active). Already on a social media platform which isn’t performing well for you? Don’t be afraid to ditch it and concentrate on those which are delivering.

  1. Video platforms are an under-used resource for small businesses.

It can be off-putting to even consider posting videos on sites like YouTube (one billion active users a month) and Vimeo. Don’t they have to be professionally-directed? Don’t they all have to be of the highest quality and cost a fortune? The answer is, of course, no. What you don’t want is a terrible video which would damage your business reputation. But you can achieve good quality short videos with iPhones or relatively cheap equipment. Do you run events? Why not add a few videos giving a flavour of those events? You could then share them on social media, or embed them in your blog or on your website. Have expertise you want to impart? Consider making an instructional video.

  1. Are your customers other businesses?

LinkedIn is a great way to get the word out to other businesses. It has more than 10 million users in the UK, and has 60 million page views per month. Share updates or post articles on the site to increase your profile and drive traffic to your blog. Simply liking, sharing, or commenting on other people’s posts can get you noticed. One small business owner told me recently: “There is a direct correlation between me liking posts on LinkedIn and commenting on them, not even posting my own, with every spike I have in customer enquiries.” The company Econsultancy says LinkedIn is responsible for 64 per cent of visits to corporate websites from any social media site. Use the tools it gives you – see who has been looking at your profile, which sectors your followers are working in, for example. Are there business forums in which you could post your content? Or, perhaps, could you set up your own group for your industry? 88 per cent of businesses have a LinkedIn presence, says Real Business Rescue. When it comes to other social media, where do your customers talk to one another? If most do that via Twitter, concentrate your efforts there.

  1. Think about infographics.

They’re a great way to impart information quickly. You’ll need someone with graphic design skills to create a good, shareable infographic. But once you’ve created it, you can continue to use and share it for as long as you like. That’s a key message for a lot of your social media content – share it more than once to get the best value for money from it.

  1. Be consistent.

Whatever you do on social media, do it consistently. I recently saw a post asking a comedian where his usual Tuesday tweet to a competition was, as it was later than scheduled. People have their routines, and they like you to fit into them. If you post three times a day, or once a day, do it at the times your customers will come to expect. The Hiscox survey said 25 per cent of small UK business they asked posted “when they have time”, with just 12 per cent posting all the time. Think about when your ideal customer would be on social media. Are your ideal customers busy parents with young children? Posting during the school run slot would be pointless. Most parents, though, tend to be up and about early. Try posting then.

  1. Maximise your website visits.

The goal with all of this is, of course, to interest people in your business – and get them to visit your website. Make sure your website address is on your Twitter and Facebook profiles. Add it as part of the caption to your images. Make sure it appears at the end of your videos. If you give your website content an overhaul, why not post a link on social media asking your followers to visit and give you feedback? Have a competition on your website? Post a link asking your followers to share.

Here’s one final tip – there’s nothing social media users hate more than being ignored or taken for granted. If they reply to your posts, please answer them, they’ll appreciate you taking the time to do that. A welcome message thanking them for following is also a touch they will appreciate.

Good luck with building your online community.

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