By Nik Darlington
Here's a question for you: what do Street Vin and Winyl have in common?
They're both new wine businesses with social media profiles, but no dedicated website.
Red Squirrel Wine also had a Twitter profile before it had a website.
The press don't care. When time-poor news hacks need a comment on a story – or when they simply need a story – they go to Twitter. 'So-and-so tweeted...' appears as regularly in broadsheet newspapers as adverts for stairlifts.
Sometimes, even where a website does exist, there's obviously a lot more effort going into the business's social media channels.
Sometimes you don't even need to say something to get a reaction. Football journalists now get excited if one footballer follows another footballer on Twitter during a transfer window. Twitter isn't just a communication medium, it's a big cup of swirling tea leaves. Even in the relatively old-fashioned milieu of politics, an MP's tweet is more powerful than a press release.
But where does business fit into this? Let's return to the opening lines: some young businesses now see their social media presence as a bigger priority than a website. Sometimes, even where a website does exist, there's obviously a lot more effort going into the business's social media channels.
Small businesses operate like this for two big reasons: social media is fast and cheap to join, and it's a rapid route to your customers. Importantly, it's a rapid route to a conversation with your customers.
But there are pitfalls. The biggest is monetising social media, which is hard to achieve (just ask Twitter themselves). You can have a chat, but can you sell anything? (Read on and you'll see I reckon you can.)
Close behind is a phenomenon I like to call the Twitter Treadmill, or in layman's terms, 'faffing about on social media for no apparent reason other than avoiding your actual work'.
There are moments when you can get caught up in the whirlwind of social media – especially the machine-gun environs of Twitter – and you feel as though you've covered miles and miles, when in reality you haven't moved forward at all. You're just flailing your limbs about on a treadmill.
Social media isn't work. But social media can help you do your work.
1. Just do it.
Social media is one of the first places many of your customers will look for you. Even if it's just a case of creating a basic account with some information, a link to your website and a couple of photos, it's worth it for the visibility and SEO alone. Red Squirrel Wine's Twitter and Facebook profiles appeared at the top of Google long before our actual website.
2. Set aside time for social media, don't let social media set aside time for you.
Allocate certain times of day and days of the week to read and post on social media. Don't have your Twitter page open constantly, because you'll check it too often when you ought to be doing something else. And definitely don't let Twitter send beeps to your phone. It's Morse code for 'Check me, I'm more important than the report you're concentrating on', when it most probably isn't.
3. Use free (or, if you're big enough, cheaper) software to monitor, post and analyse your social media channels.
There's plenty out there so find out what fits best for you. At the very least use a Twitter stream kit like Tweetdeck to see tweets, mentions and messages in one place. The more you can automate using software like Buffer, the better – see point 2.
4. Have some personality.
Your social media channels shouldn't be used as corporate newswires. Imagine your brand has an identity; if it doesn't, give it one. In a crowded marketplace, customers can choose businesses they like and can relate to; make your brand stand out. With Red Squirrel Wine, this was fairly straightforward: our social media personality was based around being a red squirrel that likes searching for new cool wines as much as it likes squirrelling away hazelnuts for winter. Unleash your inner child!
5. Use lots of links and, where possible, photos.
Send people back to the place they can do business with you. Talking about a product? Link that tweet to the product page on your website. Kicking off a big event or campaign? Include a well-taken, thoughtful image. On that note, don't ignore picture-based channels like Instagram or Pinterest. We buy with our eyes as much as our brains.
1. Mixing work and personal social media is never a good idea.
That diatribe against the disingenuous politician on Question Time? Probably best you don't let your clients know. They might vote for that politician; or, more likely, they just don't give a monkey's. If you have several members of staff using Twitter or other channels at the same time, write a short (nothing too big and preachy) social media policy, spelling things out very clearly. If you're a very small company, then even your personal account will be associated with your business one, and no amount of 'thoughts are my own' is going to make an iota of difference.
2. Never confuse your number of Twitter followers, Facebook likes or Pinterest re-pins with success.
They're not the same thing. They might be a symptom of success elsewhere; they might be a step on the route to success. Spend time creating valuable content that those oodles of new digital disciples are going to lap up and enjoy. If they become lasting customers, that's success.
3. Getting into spats with customers or other businesses is a route to disaster.
If a customer first complains about something publicly (rather than privately, which is just better manners), your only response is sweetness and light. You could even make a (good taste) joke about it. Take a deep breath and smile. People who say any publicity is good publicity haven't had bad publicity; but every cloud and all that.
4. Ignoring people is a bad idea.
These days, a tweet can be as valid a form of communication as a text message or email. Sometimes it's the only way a prospective supplier or customer can get in touch with you. And if they're using Twitter, Facebook or similar to do it, they're keen. Very keen. You never know what you might be missing out on!
Nik runs online wine merchant Red Squirrel Wine which is based at Workspace. Catch him on Twitter @NikDarlington.