As the end of the year approaches, small businesses need to think not just about wrapping up the year that is fast coming to an end, but also towards planning and strategy for the new year. This planning can be on the micro end of the operational spectrum – budgeting, scheduling, and logistics, etc – and it can also be on the grander, bolder, strategic end of the spectrum.
A good place to start is with your marketing strategy and for many small businesses this means a serious look at branding strategy. Lots of small businesses don’t even have a branding strategy – they don’t think this is for them, they think branding is for larger businesses and that small business and startups don’t require a focus on branding. They also think that they don’t have the budget to execute a branding strategy.
Wrong on both counts. Whether you are a brand new startup trying to gain traction and visibility in the marketplace, or a local coffeeshop or appliance repair business, your brand and your brand’s presence in your market is what will provide you competitive advantage in both the short term and the long run. And for those of you who believe that branding requires a huge investment in media and advertising, you are probably thinking about this in the wrong way.
Many small businesses have turned to a DIY approach to branding and have leveraged the social media as the foundation for their efforts. SM is cheap, fast, flexible, powerful and, with an investment of sweat equity, can bring meaningful returns to a small business. Remember that branding does not ave to be about universal recognition of your company, but rather about awareness within the market in which you are competing. Here is a list of 5 essential undertaking for any business seeking to leverage the social media in pursuit of brand awareness. None of these requires a significant cash expenditure, but all require an investment of capacity, time, and human capital. Small businesses that commit to these practices will often see great results over time with the returns measured in traffic, revenue, customers, and word-of-mouth.
1. Listen! This is probably the simplest thing you can do, but also the activity that requires the most commitment and attention. Right now – this very moment – your brand and your competitors are being discussed somewhere by someone and it is critical that you are paying attention to what is being said. Your company needs to be ready to respond, to answer questions, and to provide information to potential customers. Listening closely provides opportunity for growth, the occasion to improve, and the possibility to increase awareness through engagement. With a small investment of time, the data you can harvest also allows you to understand your company’s “share of voice” in the SM and allow you to devise strategy and tactics for improvement. Use the tools that the Internet provides you and make sure that someone from your company has their eyes and ears tuned in!
2. Get started. Start blogging, create Twitter profile for your business, build a Facebook page, start uploading video pontifications to YouTube, schedule a hangout on Google+… the very act of building your online presence in social media will have an impact. By reacting to, starting, and leading conversations online, you can attract followers and build reputation as a thought leader or establish your business as a source for subject-matter expertise. Remember that the goal is not just to attract people to interact with you (although this is critical) but rather that your conversations, posts, and other actions will take you beyond the first-degree dialog and intensify your presence and brand awareness.
3. Build culture. Your company may be too small for you to bother with creating specific social media “guidelines” or handbooks, but that doesn’t mean you can’t build a branding culture within your team. Encourage others to blog, to tweet, and to share content and ideas via your own SM pages. Your team can contribute to the branding by executing the same SM tactics and by leveraging their own audiences to build awareness and propagate ideas. Let each individual focus on their own area of expertise and passion: your developers can create a separate blog to discuss their own issues, challenges, and insights; your marketing team can engage with others on that specific aspect of business; and your finance whiz can provide information that will be of value to their own discrete audience, all in the service of brand-building.
4. Let it all hang out! Be transparent, be genuine, be honest, but mostly be ready to engage in honest and sincere conversations. Use the social media like geologists use remote sensors to predict seismic activity – in other words by listening closely – especially for negative comments experiences – you have the opportunity to reach in a factual, legitimate and real way to the actual person on the other end of that tweet. By providing a personal, immediate response, you can build trust, create relationships, and engender positive feedback and word-of-mouth. People do love to complain loudly, but the opportunity to turn that person around can create an evangelist for your brand that money simply can not buy.
5. Ask your customers. Many companies neglect the simplest, most straightforward, and possibly most effective tools for engaging customers and understanding how they feel about your company: ask! Put a poll out to your customers and ask them about themselves, who the are, where they live, what they do for a living – really anything you want to know is your for the asking. Better still conduct multiple polls with smaller slices of your customer base. Keep these short and be ready to offer an incentive to increase participation. Take the time and effort to curate content that you think will be valuable to your customers and your online audiences; by learning which types of content and which subjects are of interest, you can learn a great deal about your followers and your customers. Take the time to understand your audience and you can start to fathom how and why they will buy your products, or use your services.
Branding irons photo, “Iron Sky” by Jeff Stvan
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