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What is Social Media?

For many small businesses, social media seems like a foreign world that, while popular, does not quite fit their business model or marketing strategy. Some companies believe that there may not be a place or need for brand interaction in this type of forum. But once small businesses better understand social media, they oftentimes embrace this phenomenon with open arms.

Social media is a central part of many people’s lives and it continues to grow. Now, this ever-evolving channel has gone past being merely a platform to interact with people and has become an integral part of marketing strategies for businesses of all sizes. As a small business, leveraging the power of these channels can help build relationships, understand market demands and use content to influence your target market.

To understand how social media can work, you must first understand what social media is. While there are many definitions of social media, it has been defined by various individuals as:

“[A type of] media for social interaction, using highly accessible and scalable communication techniques. Social media is the use of web-based and mobile technologies to turn communication into interactive dialogue.” ?

This white paper is written with the intention of expanding on this definition and giving you an idea of what it is about this phenomenon that has captured the eyes and hearts of millions of people from all walks of life.

Back to the Future
When some people hear the term “social media,” images of Facebook pages and Twitter feeds pop into their minds. However, social media is so much more and has a history that goes further back than what many consider to be the most recent innovations.

In 1978, the first known social media platform was invented. Known as the BBS, or computerized Bulletin Board System, it was created by Ward Christensen and Randy Seuss as a way to arrange events and share information with their friends. After that, the Internet took the world by storm and by the early 1990s, platforms such as GeoCities, which allowed users to create their own websites, and Blogger, one of the first blogging communities, came to life.

By 1997, AOL had enabled its famous instant messaging service, allowing its users to chat and socialize in an online setting. In 2000, one of the first social network platforms, Friendster, was launched and within three months it had over three million users. In the following years, Google acquired Blogger, and MySpace was launched, throwing Friendster out of the running for most popular social network, while Facebook was in its famous beginning stages in a Harvard dorm room.

Source: Experian

Fast-forward only a decade, and now there are over 550 million people on Facebook, 65 million tweets being sent via Twitter each day, 2 billion daily YouTube video views and 1 billion page views per month on Tumblr. These numbers are staggering and only continue to grow as the popularity of social media platforms becomes less of a fad and more of the norm for daily living.

Laying the Foundation
Social media is not the only market that has evolved quickly. Mobile devices that can access the Internet, such as smartphones and tablets, have also exploded in popularity in only a matter of years.

Source: Morgan Stanley Research “Global Mobile vs. Desktop Internet User Population”

38 million people are using their mobile devices to access social media every day, according to ComScore. This popularity has quickly created a culture of demanding instant gratification. Now, not only are Internet-enabled devices in the palms of millions of people, but so is the ability to engage with other people and businesses. This engagement has allowed people to instantly access social media and use it in a way that has never been seen before. Now, people can let their friends know and give immediate feedback on the establishments they visit. Check-in features allow people to share their location instantly, and status updates give people the ability to promote or complain about your brand in only seconds. To be successful, businesses know that they need to be a part of the conversation to encourage positive interactions online.

So just how big of a deal is social media?
In the past, the primary way that businesses prospected new customers, and potential new clients engaged with those businesses, was through a salesperson. Now, the expectation has shifted along with the increase for instant gratification and engagement through social media. Customers are now engaging with and seeking out companies on social media platforms rather than through sales staff.

What is Social Media Exactly?

Social media is complex. There are five primary characteristics of any social platform. These include:

  • Participation – Engagement is a key to making any platform social.
  • Accessibility – Because participation is so highly encouraged, there are rarely any requirements to respond or interact through social media. This ability is accessible to everyone.
  • Two-Way Dialogue – Conversation is an important part of social media. Unlike the past one-way advertisements, social media is about interaction over solicitation.
  • Common Interests – The communities that form on social media platforms all do so because of a common interest, such as politics, hobbies or favorite activities.
  • Connectivity – Regardless of location, if a person has access to the Internet, they can log in and connect anywhere, anytime.

The Many Forms of Social Media

These five characteristics are important to understanding the general overview of what social media is, but to truly grasp its power, you need to know how people are using these platforms.

Source: Nielsen Social Media Report

A lot goes on in the online social world. Because of the number of ways people are interacting online, there are a variety of social platforms where this engagement and interaction occurs. Here are some of the most common types of social media platforms.

  • Blogs – The term blog is short for weblog. These are places on the web to log information, thoughts, and opinions, or basically anything you want to say on behalf of yourself or your business. They are typically casual in tone and more conversational to encourage comments from readers.
  • Microblogs – This type of platform limits the number of characters you can use to say your piece. The most popular, Twitter, is used frequently for status updates, to post quick thoughts or to share links to more information with a quick tease to drive traffic.
  • Networks – Networks allow people to come together in one online community. The most popular include Facebook and LinkedIn.
  • Wikis – Websites that allow people to engage with the actual content, such as Wikipedia, are known as wikis. They encourage a community effort from anyone on the web to provide the most accurate information possible by collaborating on one website or document.
  • Content specific communities – These are most commonly used with photos or videos, such as Pinterest, Flickr or YouTube. They encourage networking through a specific form of content.
  • Podcasts – These are audio or video clips that are shared through subscription-based channels, such as Apple iTunes.
  • Forums – Forums were perhaps the earliest type of social media and remain somewhat popular still today. This is where people can come together in a community and discuss specific topics.

How will this benefit my business?

Now that you have a better overview of what social media is, you may still be unsure of how your business can get involved, or if these platforms are right for your marketing strategy.

But the benefit to companies cannot be ignored.

Startup costs are low – Small businesses in particular have a unique advantage with social media marketing because the cost to get involved is minimal and the benefits are so great. Social media has allowed businesses that operate on a shoestring budget to be where the big players are. Now, small businesses can still interact with their customer base in the same way as major corporations, but without the high costs of advertising that has limited so many startups and smaller companies in the past.

Small businesses increase their exposure – According to a 2012 survey done by Social Media Examiner of small businesses, 85% of marketers said that their social media efforts increased their brand exposure, and 69% said that they saw more traffic to their website by participating in social media efforts. By blogging, engaging on various networks and starting a dialogue with your prospective and current customers, your small business can get exposure to higher quality prospects, which in turn can have a positive effect on your business growth.

Social media can deliver market intelligence – The same study showed that 65% of marketers used social media not only to attract customers, but to also learn about what the market was demanding. Small businesses can be more innovative by learning about their customers through engagement, as well as researching where they visit most. Networks, forums and blogs give honest insight into what customers demand and provide businesses with a unique way to listen to customer needs and expand their offerings to accommodate these new demands.

Small businesses can increase customer loyalty and generate new leads – Your customers expect to find you on social media, and when you are able to engage with them on a regular basis on the platforms where they visit most often, you have the unique ability to establish loyalty to your brand. This loyalty can be shared with their networks of friends and connections. Most of the time, these connections are like-minded and provide you with a higher quality lead than if you were to shotgun your marketing approach to a wider market. With social marketing, you have the unique ability to create loyalty within a specific niche and generate more leads from the people who are most likely to purchase from you.

Tips for Using Social Media for Business

Now that you understand the benefits, you may still be uncertain if you will have the time to devote to your social media strategy to make it effective. But one of the biggest benefits of social media is the ability to use it as much or as little as you wish. Of course, the more you use it effectively, the better your results.

Here are some of the top ways companies are using social media to their advantage:

  • Be conversational – Taking your business too seriously on social media will turn people away. Instead, interact as if you were a salesman dialoguing with a potential customer. You would most likely want to ask the customer questions, and engage in a conversation instead of only pushing your message on them. By doing the same on social media, you will see more success.
  • Provide something of value – Give your customers a reason to engage with you on social media by providing something they will consider valuable. This can be high quality content through blogs, or a discount for being loyal to your brand. No matter what you provide, deliver something that your end customer will appreciate.
  • Use calls to action – Some parts of marketing never change and calls to action are one of them. You must still ask them to visit your website, call your store, or purchase a product on social media. But instead of flashy buttons on a web page or bright roadside signs, you can use images or text to ask your customer to do what you want them to do.
  • Keep it a two way street – People don’t want to be talked at on social media; they are on the platforms as a way to engage. Conversations are a two-way street and this should be no different on the social media platforms you use. Converse with your customers and you will get to know their wants and needs, and you may find a new niche market you never knew existed for your business.

Future of Social Media

Source: Awareness Inc. “State of Social Media Marketing: Top Areas for Social Marketing Investment and Biggest Social Marketing Challenges in 2012” Jan. 2012

As the desire for the instant gratification provided by mobile devices and social media increases, so will the number of people accessing social media on their smartphones. The number of social platforms is also set to increase. From the success of Pinterest in 2011, many experts predict that more multimedia platforms are in the mix and will dominate the market in the coming years, making high quality content, image and video creation more of a necessity.

While the future of social media is hard to predict, one thing is certain; social media is not a fad that is set to go away anytime soon. Instead, it is an important new marketing strategy that, in order to be competitive, small businesses need to embrace fully.

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