Social media lost some of its appeal last year through a series of scandals. People deleted their accounts and a few high-profile companies abandoned it altogether. But despite the acrimony, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn all managed to grow their global user base and remain key to the operations of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
Many founders have used social media to build powerful personal brands. Take Gary Vaynerchuk, a wine entrepreneur turned marketing expert who has 1.8m followers on Twitter.
The first step to success is to understand where your audience is and then choose the relevant tool, he says. “If you’re in the business-to-consumer [B2C] space, that means a combination of Facebook and Instagram, but if you’re business-to-business [B2B], it’s LinkedIn.”
Don’t sell, engage
Companies obsess about sales, with many dreaming of posting on social media and watching the orders flow in. The reality tends to be a little harder, but it does happen. The key is to engage rather than sell.
Ashley Lockwood of Deskmate has succeeded in making sales through Twitter and Instagram, but these have come through a mixture of customer feedback and image-led posts. “Twitter gives customers a chance to communicate directly and we gain product feedback,” says the furniture company co-founder. This helps to generate more engagement as other followers will see interactions on their feeds. “We’ve had direct sales from people who have seen friends buy something and tweet about it.”
Lockwood says that Instagram is great for product brands such as his, but imagery can’t be done on the cheap. “There’s a lot of competition, so everything needs to look professional."
Social media’s serious side
B2B companies would be missing a trick by avoiding LinkedIn, which has 590m global members, 25m of whom are in the UK. The website has always been the serious adult of social media, but it’s a place where SME owners can expect serious interaction. “People tend to come with a professional mindset and identity; it’s very business-oriented,” says Tom Pepper, its head of marketing.
LinkedIn encourages thought leadership through longer-form content, such as articles, videos and considered blogs. Pepper says that, like other sites, there’s an algorithm that curates feeds, but the main factor behind a post’s reach is engagement (a combination of likes, shares, comments and views).
He echoes Vaynerchuk on vanity metrics, saying that firms shouldn’t obsess over them, instead focusing on outcomes. LinkedIn’s own research claims that thought leadership leads directly to sales.
Content that drives conversations
With more than 2.3bn monthly active users, Facebook remains by far the largest social media website, but businesses view the platform in a dimmer light than before. “The scandals have hurt its reputation,” says Marie Page, founder of The Digiterati, an online consultancy.
Enterprises are also often irritated about a lack of reach, she adds. Unless a post gains many likes and shares or gets boosted with ad spend, it tends to be seen by only a small percentage of a page’s fans because of Facebook’s algorithm. Entrepreneurs must therefore focus on creating content that’s “engaging and drives conversations, as anything too promotional or salesy will be squashed.”
Page also says that well-run Facebook groups tend to perform better than pages, but these require dedicated admins to ensure that communities remain “troll-free, supportive” and inviting.
Vaynerchuk’s has a strong social media work ethic and he says that entrepreneurs need to take the lead. “Managing and engaging your community cannot be outsourced, especially if you’re building a personal brand.”
For time-poor founders worried about endless posting and commenting, he suggests more focus, which means not “spending four hours debating what to write” and not getting hung up on the “vanity metrics” of likes and shares.