For years, marketing experts have been urging small businesses to establish and maintain social media accounts to reach their customers.

Now, it’s just about the only way.

“Whenever anyone complains that sales are low, I always like to say, ‘Wonderful — that’s a great opportunity for marketing. It doesn’t have to cost anything if you’re willing to invest your time,’” said Tom McClintock, owner of Relationship Martech. The company uses marketing technology to help businesses reach their customers and increase revenue.

It’s a good idea for companies to be using COVID-induced downtime to strengthen social media or to start up a social media program, McClintock said.

“The beauty of social media is that it’s this ongoing stream,” he said. “Whoever was successful or popular last year, no longer really matters. It’s what’s happening right now. So if you haven’t been doing social media marketing and you want to start today, you have a chance, based on how good your content is, to be at the top of the rankings. … Now that things are slowed down, you might as well take time to be doing this.”

Whether a business is reviewing its social media strategy or starting from scratch, it’s important to look at that strategy within the context of overall goals and marketing strategy.

It isn’t necessary for businesses to invest time in every social media platform, McClintock said, but to find the media and the messages that are most important and relevant to their customers. 

“I would start with my website, as that’s going to be the hub …  where you’re trying to drive traffic,” he said. “So make sure that your website is addressing all of your different constituent groups, and then develop your spokes, which would be the social media plan.”

Email marketing is another channel that businesses can develop now.

“You should be collecting phone numbers so that you can be reaching out to people on text,” McClintock said. “If you have a storefront, you want to make sure that is aligned with your online marketing. It should all be cohesive.”

Paid media such as Google pay-per-click and Facebook ads “can be a great shortcut when you don’t have a lot of time and you want to get a message out to a lot of people,” he said. “But it can be expensive.”

Analyzing the performance of all your social media channels is important to gauge how well a particular strategy or message is working and to adjust if necessary, McClintock said.

The best messaging seeks to establish subject matter expertise in a business’ specialty and offers something that will help people.

“Remember that people still have a lot of the same needs and desires they had before COVID, and they will continue to have the same needs and desires after,” he said. “People really need leadership right now. When you have established yourself this way, then people will seek you out.”

Morgana LeBold, owner of Red Door Consulting, suggests focusing on quality of content, not quantity.

“I have some restaurant clients whose first inclination is to post every day, multiple times a day,” she said. “Nobody’s going to see those.”

It’s better to focus on the community’s needs and find ways to give back, she said.

For those who aren’t yet pursuing online marketing, “it is never too late to start on social media,” LeBold said.

She recommends that businesses look at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn — “the Big Four that will work for any business. I always recommend Facebook and Instagram.” 

The most productive way to use them is to stay engaged with clients and start conversations with potential new clients.

“Don’t be afraid to look at your competitors and what seems to be working for other people,” she said. “A lot of places are really thinking outside the box.”

LeBold said it’s important to think about how you want your business to be perceived.

“People do business with people they know, like and trust,” she said. “Social media really lets you converse with people and build a following.”

She recommends looking at the guidance platforms like Facebook offer to help people develop their social media marketing strategies. She plans to offer social media workshops through her website, reddoorconsult.com.

“There are a lot of really good forums about how to do it well,” she said. “I look at my own feed to see what posts are doing well; that might be something even a beginner could mimic.”

In this time of disconnection, people are looking for human touches, said Lisa Bachman of Bachman PR.

“I’m not saying don’t be professional, but show your human side,” she said. “Show your personality and have fun.”

Bachman said she has encouraged clients to post how they’re taking care of their employees and the public.

Tone is important: “People want some good news,” she said.

Another function of social media “is to reassure your customers or the public that you’re still in business and you’re still there for them. Don’t overdo it, but don’t go dark either,” she said.

“This is a great time for everybody to take stock of how we’re communicating and what is the best way to do that,” Bachman said. “The world is going to change in how we communicate and how we work.”

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Behind the News, Social Media