"What Can Social Media do for Your Small Business?" focused on what social media could do for your small- or medium-sized business -- the fact that it's neither a broadcast medium nor a marketing tool. But now that we know about the what, how about the how?
First, work out which social media sites you want to engage with. There are a lot of them, even if you only count the bigger names, and you almost certainly don't have the time or resources to be active on all of them. You need to cherry-pick a handful (or even just one), and really focus your energy on that select group.
The most important question to ask yourself is whether a given site already has an active community around your business area or product. It's far easier to engage with an existing community than trying to start from scratch.
Think Outside the Big Names
Everyone knows Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and all the rest. All those can be useful, but the real benefit for smaller businesses can be found in digging out sites specific to your niche or to the demographic that you're targeting.
How much luck you have here depends a lot on your industry or sector. If you're involved in anything along the lines of tech, design, coaching, marketing, or the web, the world is your oyster. There are thousands of communities, portals, portfolio sites, news aggregators, etc., waiting for you.
If, however, you're doing something connected to the real world, you might find things a little more difficult. But don't despair! You may not find many (or any) dedicated social media sites for you, but what you will find are forums. Yep, forums.
There's almost bound to be something around your industry, but if you're still stumped, look for any well-known or popular blogs in your niche. Even though they're squarely in the social media arena, the idea of becoming involved in other peoples' blogs for social networking is often overlooked.
Of course, this doesn't mean you should comment spam every relevant post you can find! It means commenting regularly, in such a way as to build relationships with the site owner and their other readers and guest bloggers. This can also be a great way to start off with link building, and many well maintained blogs also have forums attached.
So You've Picked Your Sites... What Next?
Each site, big or small, has its own etiquette and dos and don'ts (especially for new users). Make sure you become familiar with these and stick to them -- you'll never succeed by alienating your community before you begin. Common faux pas include promoting yourself on a forum before introducing yourself properly or using auto-reply spam and auto-follows on Twitter.
Once you're past the first step, a bit of common sense, perseverance, and a generous attitude will prevail. There are thousands of guides for specific tactics for different sites around the web (some worth reading, many not), but realizing that your goal is to build relationships, and become an appreciated part of your community, is the key to making this work.
Engagement is Key
If you can start out with a philosophy of engagement, rather than of marketing, you will find things become a lot simpler.
Broadcasting your message and selling can come later -- often a lot later. You may even find that you never need consciously do any selling at all, as the process of becoming an integrated part of your chosen communities will naturally result in increased awareness of your product or service.
Start Now... and Stick With it
Succeeding with social simply takes time; there are no shortcuts or fast-boil options available.
Seth Godin recommends that authors start promoting a new book three years before it's due for release. That's not a bad rule of thumb for social either.
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