social media marketing

The growth of social media, in less than a decade since it first emerged, has been nothing short of remarkable. The statistics regarding Facebook usage alone are staggering: There are now a total of 1.4 billion (with a "b") Facebook users worldwide, which equates to 11 percent of the population of planet Earth. And the average Facebook user spends more than 15 hours a month on the site.

On Twitter, meanwhile, about 190 million tweets are sent every day. And on YouTube, 490 million visitors are accessing 92 billion page views every month. Over at Flickr there are more than five billion photos, with 3,000 more being uploaded every minute.

Looking at social media usage in the U.S. from a broader perspective, more than half of Americans (56 percent) have a profile on at least one social media site. This is up from 52 percent last year and 48 percent in 2010. But the U.S. only ranks #10 in the world when it comes to the average number of hours spent per month using social media (7.6) - Israel is #1 at 11.1 hours.

Given such staggering statistics, it’s not surprising that many businesses have rushed to add social media marketing to their marketing and advertising mix. Should yours? For many self-employed individuals and solo entrepreneurs, the answer is a most definite "maybe."

A Concrete Strategy

Why the qualification? Because no business should embark on a social media marketing campaign without a concrete strategy in place. This strategy starts with answering a basic but critical question: Specifically what do you hope to accomplish with social media marketing?

Like any marketing or advertising initiative, its critical that you define your objectives upfront, as well as how you'll go about measuring the program's effectiveness in reaching the objectives. Unfortunately, though, many businesses today jump head-first into social media marketing for no reason other than it's the latest hot marketing and advertising fad and "everybody else is doing it."

"We've got to get our Facebook page up and start getting our customers to 'like' us," the thinking often goes. Or, "We've got to start tweeting out daily messages to all of our customers and prospects." Or, "We’ve got to get our customers to 'check in' on Foursquare while they’re here."

The business then proceeds to build its Facebook page, or send its tweets, or get its customers to check in - and then waits for...what, exactly? More sales? Higher profits? More new customers?

The primary strength of social media as a marketing and advertising tool is the ability it gives a business to build and strengthen relationships with its customers and prospects. This is especially true for self-employed professionals and professional services firms, since many of these types of businesses are heavily dependent on building strong relationships with their customers.

Social media is also a great way to monitor customer feedback to your company's products and services and to your brand in general. Many customers will share feedback — both good and bad — with you via social media that they wouldn’t share face-to-face. This gives you an opportunity to respond quickly to criticism and complaints and try to make things right with unhappy customers, which can help strengthen customer loyalty.

Establish Realistic Measurements

Social media generally isn’t the kind of marketing vehicle that is going to result in more direct sales or higher profits. So a realistic social media marketing goal for a self-employed professional or professional services firm might be "to increase awareness of and interest in our business among customers and qualified prospects."

This could be measured by tracking clicks to your website that come directly from your social media pages, or monitoring your 'likes' and other feedback on your Facebook page or the LinkedIn recommendations you receive. On the other hand, "increasing sales or profits by x percent" is probably an unrealistic social media goal for most self-employed and professional services firms.

"Who's Going to Do It?"

This is the next question you must ask when it comes to social media marketing. Many big companies are hiring employees and building entire departments around social media marketing, but that’s probably not feasible for your small business.

The good news is that social media marketing really isn't rocket science. There are certainly some do's and don'ts and best practices you should follow, but you can probably learn what you need to know to create and execute a basic social media marketing plan by doing some research on your own. Or you can hire a social media marketing consultant or agency to help you if you prefer not to go the do-it-yourself route.

A final word of caution: Whatever social media marketing strategy you decide to pursue, be consistent and stick with it. Launching a half-hearted social media campaign that doesn't consistently update your Facebook page, or send out tweets, or perform whatever social media activity is required, is worse than launching no campaign at all.

It will demonstrate a lack of follow-through on the part of your business with your customers and prospects and could actually damage your relationships with them - not to mention end up being a huge waste of your valuable money and time.