How and Why to Invest Sweat Equity in Social Networking

From tweens to grandparents, using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has become as common as picking up the telephone. But for small businesses, navigating the Web of social networks can be downright scary and frustrating. One slip up and your reputation can be ruined.

Follow these three tips from the experts, and make your social networking experience all the more successful.

Tip No. 1: Observe

Before jumping head first and creating a page on Facebook, or Tweeting about your business on Twitter, it pays to take some time to familiarize yourself with the different social networks out there.

“If you step out in the wrong way you’ll get called out and it’s a lot harder to change tract,” said Justin Levy, general manager of New Marketing Labs, a Boston digital marketing company. First, you should “hover” in the social networks and take note of what everyone else is doing, he said.

Since there are a number of networking sites, a small business should take time to think about where its customers likely hang out before creating an account.

“You have to talk to people and find out which sites they are on,” said David Meerman Scott, author of “The New Rules of Marketing & PR.” You have to understand what your customers are doing online, he said.

Kevin Harrington, a Concord, Mass.-based chiropractor, connects with clients -- after getting permission ahead of time -- via social networking sites. But he doesn’t stop there. Harrington has a Facebook page, produces stretching videos on YouTube and maintains an online blog.

“Its building stronger relationships with clients,” said Harrington. “It keeps patients educated and connected.”

Tip No 2: Cut the Sales Pitch, Create Valuable Content

Successful small businesses all share one trait: the ability to sell. On social networks that skill needs to be checked at the door. Yes, you want to promote your business, but you can’t create a brochure on Facebook, or constantly Tweet about how great your product is.

“You can’t do a hard-sales push,” said Scott. “Those sorts of things don’t work in a social network. What works is being helpful and being part of the community.”  That means creating content that will engage and aid your customers -- not spam them.

For Moxie Cinema, a Springfield, Missouri, independent film movie house, having a Facebook and Twitter page isn’t about gaining new customers, but instead about keeping its existing ones “in the know,” said co-owner Nicole Chilton.  Moxie Cinema uses the sites to posts movie listing and special events.

“I try not to oversaturate our followers with constant updates and event requests, but keep it to a minimum,” said Chilton. “Personally, I get really annoyed when my news feed or Twitter page has a dozen of updates from one particular person. I tend to skip past their updates, and I know that's not uncommon.”

When creating content for social networks, employing humor may go a long way in creating a buzz.

“All the top videos on YouTube, 95%, have humor,” said Starr Hall, co-author of “Get Connected: The Social Networking Toolkit for Business.” “Video is the best way to build a connection.”

You don’t have to spend a fortune creating a high-quality video, but you do have to spend time making the video clever and funny.

“With online there shouldn’t be any sales pitches. It turns people off,” said Hall.

Harrington said he employs a strategy of 95% information and 5% marketing.

“People on Facebook don’t want to read an ad about me,” he said.

Tip No. 3: Be Patient, Have Fun

The draw for many small businesses is the amount of potential customers that can be reached on a social network. But it ain’t easy. Creating the right strategy and maintaining your social networks can take hours and hours of work.  When results aren’t immediate, frustration can set in.

“A lot of people think that going on Twitter they will have 400,000 followers and see revenue spin right around -- and that’s all in a week,” said Levy. “It’s not expensive to be on all this, but it’s a lot of sweat equity. You have to be willing to put the work in.”

At the end of the day, if you don’t enjoy engaging in social networks then it may not be for you. While its work, it shouldn’t feel like a chore.

If it feels fun people are more apt to follow you, said Scott. “It's so much better doing it with enthusiasm,” he said.

If you don’t enjoy it, find someone who does.

Moxie Cinema has 10 part-timers, most of whom are students.“I can set up our [student] staff members as administrators. Since they're on Facebook more than I am, they can create events and add photos,” said Chilton.