Social media can be an effective way of marketing your business -- but you need to choose the right platforms and the right tools. Get started with these tested and proven methods.
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Choose the right platform
Social networking platforms aren't identical in function or reach, and that means they won't be equally suitable for your business. Here's what you need to know about the main contenders. (We haven't included options primarily focused on complex original content creation, such as YouTube, WordPress or other blogging services. Those can also be useful for business but they're outside the scope of this discussion.)
Bear in mind that there's no in-principle reason why you can't use more than one platform, and indeed that's often a wise idea. The main constraint is likely to be the amount of time you can devote to each platform.
With 1.3 billion users (including a claimed 13 million Australians), Facebook is the biggest player in the social networking space. That breadth is something of a double-edged sword: there are a lot of potential customers to reach, but it's also a crowded space, and if you set up a business presence Facebook will hammer you fairly relentlessly to spend money on advertising, or on "promoting" your posts so more people see them.
When it's useful: If you don't want to set up a separate online presence, Facebook can be a useful alternative approach. It also offers a straightforward way to promote specials and news product lines.
Owned by Facebook but operated separately, Instagram is all about sharing (and tagging) images. Photos can be enhanced with a variety of filters before you share them. The focus is very much on access via mobiles rather than other devices (which isn't necessarily a problem, given the growing dominance of mobile phones and tablets as access devices).
When it's useful: If you're enthusiastic with your phone camera and work in an industry with an emphasis on the visual, then Instagram can be a great way to draw attention to yourself. Right now it doesn't have any formal advertising options, so it's definitely more of a general marketing tool.
Sharing messages and links in 140 characters or less, Twitter's open platform has made it the de facto platform for celebrities and businesses to share news and views.
When it's useful: For fast promotion of new products or deals. Note that if you want a large Twitter following, you'll either have to be exceptionally famous to start with or regularly share non-business content: talking about yourself or your business constantly often puts followers off.
Pinterest lets you assemble collections of links and images into collections based around a common theme.
When it's useful: For creative and retail industries, Pinterest is a useful way of sharing inspiration and ideas.
We'll be honest -- we're including Google+ for completeness. Because it's difficult to have a Google account without having a Google+ presence, there are more than 500 million users, but it's honestly hard to see how anyone is benefitting from its existence other than Google itself.
When it's useful: From a business promotion standpoint, we're not persuaded it is, save for one thing: it's arguably worth having a basic Google+ profile for your business just to ensure that you're not excluded the next time Google updates its indexing principles.
Schedule updates regularly
This is the most important principle of all, whichever platform you intend to use. If you have a social media presence, you need to update regularly. If you're not regularly contributing and adding new content, you'll look tired and unprofessional.
That doesn't mean you have to hang around on Facebook or Twitter all day. Using a scheduling tool means you can set posts to run at a time of your choosing, maximising effectiveness while cutting down the time you need to spend. We've rounded up some of the most useful tools for automating schedules of posts.
A related and important point: make sure you respond to any comments or follow-ups from customers. Many people will look to social media (especially Twitter and Facebook) for customer service, and they'll be quick to slag you off if you don't reply. The most effective way to deal with any online criticism is to respond promptly and courteously. That doesn't mean all the details need to be made public; often, it's better to contact customers directly and leave a basic response indicating you've done that.
Keep it professional
Social media is personal, but that doesn't mean you can stop being professional. Your business social media presence isn't the best place to share political opinions or other potentially controversial content. Check out our guide to other small business mistakes to avoid online.
Social networking picture from Shutterstock