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Every company cares about marketing, but small businesses have to be especially careful about how they invest. You may have a limited marketing budget, so making the most of each dollar spent is crucial.

That’s where social media enters the equation. It’s not just a social phenomena anymore. It’s also a vehicle for businesses of all sizes to reach a target demographic and generate potential customers and clients. It’s an especially useful avenue for promoting content (and yes, you should be doing that, too).

According to an infographic from Vertical Response (h/t SocialMediaToday), about 43 percent of small businesses surveyed spend at least six hours per week maintaining their social media presences. The more interesting point may be that 57 percent of those small businesses aren’t investing that much time on social media. While that may be the product of limited resources, it’s also a missed opportunity. After all, marketing the right way is about making the most of those limited resources—and social media is an ideal way to do so.

Here’s how Contently’s Aubre Andrus put it: “Social media is a time-consuming but important reality for any new venture. It will help increase your Google search rankings, give your brand a human voice, and allow your customers to start a conversation with ease. Now you just have to get started.”

So, how does on actually get started? Here are some valuable tips.

Define Your Target Demographic

What kind of audience are you looking to reach in the first place? To whom do your products or services primarily cater? These are the kind of first-order questions that should guide your social media presence. Defining your audience can guide your messaging and choice of social media vehicle alike.

This is an important starting point, and it will likely be an extension of market research you’ve already conducted. There are important differences between what interests different demographics. Is your target younger or older? Male, female or both? Is it a niche demographic or fairly universal?

The better your grasp of the audience, the better you’ll be able to craft content and messaging that it actually cares about.

Start Small

There’s no use in having a presence on five different social media platforms if you don’t have the staff to effectively maintain them all. You should be able to regularly update each account and respond to anyone who reaches out. That may mean starting with basics like Twitter and Facebook, potentially waiting on something like Instagram or YouTube.

There’s no shame in adopting a narrower approach, especially at first. Accounts that are rarely updated are unlikely to gain much traction. We’re all for an ambitious approach, but it’s more important that you treat each social media platform like it’s important.

Develop a Comprehensive Strategy

It’s not enough to simply have an account with Twitter or Facebook. Nor is it wise to just blindly post whatever comes to mind. Effectively exploiting social media is all about messaging and branding. What information do you want to convey to your target audience?

You probably want to remind them about what your business does (and what it does best). That could range from posting content that reflects your product/service wheelhouse to showing off some positive online reviews.

While in the planning stages, don’t forget the practical stuff. Someone will need to manage your social media presence, and that may wind up being assigned to a capable multi-tasker. Most small businesses won’t have the luxury of hiring a full-time social media officer.

Build a Following

A social media presence won’t count for much if no one is paying attention. It’s unlikely your brand is already so prominent that it will immediately generate a hoard of followers. Most small businesses don’t have that kind of leverage. One key way to build a following is by networking. Follow major influencers, experts and market leaders, and share their posts when appropriate. They just might take notice and reward you with some free promotion.

You should also feature your social media handles prominently just about everywhere: on your blog posts, on business cards, on your homepage, etc. Ideally, current customers and clients will take notice and become part of your social media family. After all, they’re the ones most likely to share your posts and spread the word.

Mix It Up

Struggling to come up with what to post? Diversification is a virtue. If you find yourself only sharing links to your website, that could be a problem. Audiences in this day and age are pretty savvy, and they’re looking for more than shameless plugs. That’s one reason a truly effective social media presence often involves some kind of content strategy. You want to share things that your target demographic will actually find useful or entertaining.

“On every social network, you need a solid mix of self-promotion, testimonials, and randomness as well as original content that’s of pure value to your readers,” writes Andrus. “Self-promotion includes direct links to your website, peeks behind the scenes, and news about your company. Testimonials can be pulled from a Yelp page, an email, or a blog or article endorsing your product. Randomness can include funny photos, holiday wishes, quotes, and shared content from other resources that is interesting and relevant.”

It’s even worth linking to what some of your competitors are saying, especially if they’re inclined to return the favor. The big point here is to think creatively and adopt a wide-ranging strategy. Avoid the kind of repetition that might cause some in your audience to tune out.

Know What’s Trending

Chances are there’s almost always something trending that relates to your specific industry. Sometimes it’s your job to figure out the link between the two. If you’re a small law firm, keep track of heavily publicized legal issues (e.g. those of the celebrity sort). Keep your finger on the pulse of current events. If your clientele is primarily local, it’s especially wise to keep track of what’s going on in your area.

Remember that things like hashtags can be particularly valuable in making your posts more visible. That’s another good way to increase your following.

Be Patient

Building a massive following won’t happen overnight. Nor is there anything automatic about turning that following into a loyal customer base. This is a largely organic process, and it can take some time to build momentum. In the meantime, you should keep up the good work. Regularly updated social media accounts that offer real value will almost certainly pay dividends eventually.

And if that dedication doesn’t seem to be paying off after a few months, it might be worth consulting with an expert. Even with some extra help, your social media efforts are likely to be significantly less expensive than alternative marketing campaigns. Experts can clue you into programs that help you manage your presence and measure its effectiveness via analytics.

At the end of the day, you should still be focused on results.

“Integrate your social media marketing with your customer relationship management and sales systems,” writes Monster’s John Rossheim. “Don’t let your social media be an island. Don’t lose track of leads generated by social media, and don’t treat customer communications casually just because they arrive via these informal media.”

Remember, a robust social media presence should yield real savings in time—and some increased revenue in the process.

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