If you’ve ever contemplated setting up your own business then this new series could be just what you need to get the cogs turning. In the coming weeks we’ll be exploring all aspects of going it alone – from determining a clear proposition and plan, sourcing premises, sorting equipment, making decisions on hardware and software, marketing and promotion, finances and staying on the right side of employment law. Our aim being to help you consider what’s important before you realise in your enthusiasm you haven’t properly considered something or that the decisions you’ve made have boxed you into a corner.

This time, websites - social media. Does your business need its own social media channels? And what's the best approach to monitoring?

What is social media?

Social media is a catch-all term to refer to a range of digital tools that allow people and organisations to create, share or consume multimedia information. It can be applied to sites and apps like Facebook externallinkor Twitter externallink, Instagram externallink or Snapchat externallink.

Typically social media services have a number of common features. For example, most will expect you to create a user account and some kind of profile page and those pages can be 'followed' by people or groups. Social channels will typically give you a 'news feed' view of the people or groups you follow, the ability to sift through the news feed using a range of filters or hashtags and the ability to receive notifications based on interests and actions. Many services will offer some kind of liking/ commenting/ rating mechanism too allowing users to easily see what's popular.

Do you need a social media channel?

In many ways questioning whether you need a presence on social media is becoming increasingly redundant. In much the same way as businesses require a web presence, people increasingly expect organisations to be present in the spaces and places that they choose to interact online - and that, increasingly, is in social channels.

For brands and businesses social media offers significant opportunities - the ability to forge immediate connections and have real-time conversations with potential customers on a global scale would have been unimaginable even a few years ago.

While a small business probably won't require a presence on every new and emerging social media channel, there is an argument to suggest a presence on Twitter, LinkedIn externallinkand potentially Facebook as a minimum offering as these channels are among the most popular.

How should you engage on social media?

If you've decided to take the plunge and open a channel on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook you need to ensure you can reguarly maintain it. If your branding is still the channel's default years down the line and your most recent post is now months old, you're doing both your business and your audience a disservice. It's worth taking some time to plan out the content you plan to broadcast on your channel. Rather than saying the same thing over and over, think of new angles. Don't be afraid to share content from others - this shows that you're keeping abreast of industry issues and broadens the appeal of your channels and encourages people to 'follow'.

When thinking about the kind of content you will produce for social media, you need to be aware of how channels differ. Tweets must fit in 140 characters, Facebook posts can ramble on beyond. Some things are true regardless of channel - posts with images and/or videos tend to attract more attention and be shared more widely, broadening your reach and appeal.

Think about how you can make the most of content on your website. Regular blog posts or articles on topical issues, problems your core audiences will face (and how you are positioned to solve them), can be drip fed into your social media streams, positioning you as a clued up industry professional.

How should you listen to social media?

With so many people choosing to interact on social media it's an obvious place to seek out the latest news and events and people's thoughts and ideas. Listening carefully for subjects of interest to you and your fledgling business is a good way of building up your knowledge on all kinds of subjects. You also need to consider direct mentions of your own business or brand.  

Not so long ago, if you received a letter of complaint from a disgruntled customer, it was easy to ignore it and not take action, but social media has made conversations between individuals and companies transparent. You need to deal upfront with complaints and negative feedback and ensure you respond quickly to avoid things escalating. A good quick, apologetic (if appropriate) response can only enhance your online persona by showing you to be responsive and interested in your customers. Similarly, seeking out and acknowledging comments and feedback will help paint you in a good light with your customers and more generally too.

A strategy for keyword monitoring

Thinking about keywords is a good place to start considering your social media monitoring... these are the words and phrases that you might expect your customers to use on social media when having conversations about your business and its products or services. Consider alternate words and phrases and any vernacular or slang that may also come into play. By staying on top of these keywords you'll be able to easily sift through streams of social posts to keep abreast of people's conversations.

The tools for social media monitoring

Many social media channels offer their own tools for seeking out and monitoring what's been posted. If you're posting material across multiple channels, however, having to log into a range of different sites to access these tools can be frustrating. Using a dedicated monitoring tool avoids this frustration by allowing you to post and monitor to multiple channels all from one service. Some tools to consider for posting across multiple channels and general monitoring include Hootsuite externallinkand Tweetdeck externallink.

There are also a host of tools available for monitoring social media mentions. Theses include Social Mention externallink, Social Bearing externallink, Hashtags.org externallink, Twazzup externallink and Keyhole externallink.

What about social networking?

In the course of posting to and monitoring your social media channels you'll likely come across a range of organisations and individuals who have interesting things to say. By following and engaging with these individuals you can tap into a wealth of expertise and insight. Finding out about that research paper or conference before everyone else, knowing who has expertise in the area where you've just hit a particularly knotty problem and being able to quickly ask a question (or two) of subject specialists, you'll soon begin to see the value in leveraging your professional social network.


Previous: Starting out in practice: Do you need a website?
Next: Our series will continue later in the year.

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