Are you taking advantage of social media in your small business? According to a recent report by the Social Media Examiner, you probably should. 89 percent of the respondents said social media was providing them greater exposure and 75 percent claimed it was increasing traffic. Although only 43 percent suggested that social media increased sales, I think social channels should be looked at more as a brand building play anyway—which is very consistent with the survey results. That's not to say social channels don't generate sales, they do. I just don't think the social channel should be treated the same as a Google Adwords campaign or direct mail. I was surprised to read that about 25 percent of the small business marketers surveyed had been doing anything with social media for a year of less and only 30 percent had been doing anything for a couple of years or more. For many small businesses, I think the social bandwagon is a wagon you should likely get on, provide you take the right approach. Nevertheless, before you jump in with both feet, here are five questions you should probably ask yourself: 1) Do you really want to do this? Before you spend time on strategy, before you set up any social media accounts, ask yourself, “Am I willing to invest the man hours that will be required to make the effort a success?” Most small businesses won’t require a full-time social media person, but they will require someone’s time. For example, if you plan on posting a blog every week, plan on three or four hours to research and write. Once you get in a groove, you might be able to cut that down a bit, but if all you’re doing is once a week, you won’t see much time savings. What’s more, it takes about 50 posts before Google starts paying any attention to you, so you’ll want to commit to a year’s worth of writing before you’ll see much search traffic. If you’re going to have a Facebook or Twitter account, you’ll want to make daily updates — which don’t add much time to the day but can add up to an hour or more if you’re updating Twitter, Facebook and any other social media — to build a following. Best practice suggests a couple of posts in the morning and a couple of posts at the end of the day. That doesn’t mean you can ignore that media the rest of the day. You’ll want to make sure someone is regularly (every hour or two) monitoring your accounts in the event a customer or prospective customer tries to interact with a question or concern. This person might be you, but doesn’t have to be. Just remember, whoever interacts with the world on social media becomes a spokesman for you and your company. Choose wisely. However, if nobody’s there, you lose the interaction and the value of the social medium. Do you really want to do this? 2) What do you want to accomplish? As I said before, being social just to be social is time that could be better spent someplace else. Do you want to establish yourself as a thought leader? Do you want to keep your customers up-to-date on what’s happening in your company? Do you want to keep customers and potential customers educated on industry best practice? Do you want to leverage social media as a customer service tool? You’ll need to build a strategy around those objectives and execute accordingly. Some media do a better job at some objectives than others. 3) Are you prepared to air your dirty laundry in public? None of us like to deal with public complaints, but maybe this question is put the wrong way. A better question might be, “Are you willing to watch your dirty laundry aired in public?” Whether you’re part of the social conversation or not, people are talking about you and your business online — the good, the bad and the ugly. If your business is like most, you’re going to be exposed to some pretty intense negative feedback from time to time. One of my friends purchased a shed from a big box home improvement store a while back. It was to be shipped in a couple of days, but somehow his order got lost. After several frustrating phone calls with no resolution, he decided to try complaining on the business's Facebook site. Within a few minutes, he had a very friendly social media person try to take his complaint offline to “shut him up.” You may want to establish an official policy regarding how this type of interaction will take place. Don’t wait until it’s time to make those decisions while in the heat of battle. He suggested they work it out on Facebook. Not long after that, he had confirmation of the shipment and the issue was resolved. Like most of us, they didn’t want this dialog to take place on a public forum — they had behaved badly and wanted to hide the misstep. However, publicly making things right probably helped them with their Facebook followers. We all understand that mistakes happen. This retailer demonstrated publicly that it was willing to help its customer (although it would have been much easier to have dealt with the issue before my friend escalated the issue to Facebook). 4) Who is going to be responsible? If nobody in particular is responsible, your social media efforts aren’t going to go anywhere. A few years back I did some social media consulting for a local nursery. They had volumes of tips to help gardeners and we started sharing them three times a week in a blog that invited them to visit one of their gardening experts to make sure they got the best advice for their particular yard. It was so successful that they decided to bring the effort in-house. Unfortunately, they lost whatever momentum we had gained when they stopped posting daily on their Facebook and Twitter accounts and quit contributing regularly to their blog. My guess is that nobody was really responsible to make sure the effort happened every day (see point No. 1. 5) How are you going to eat the elephant? Launching a social media effort can feel pretty daunting for a small business, but it’s a lot like eating an elephant, you need to do it one bite at a time. Once you’ve discovered where your customers hang out the most, start there. If it’s Twitter, spend your time there. Once you’ve got that down and feel like you can take the next step, move forward. You might be surprised at how quickly you’ll have a robust social media presence. If you were waiting for the fad to go away, I'm not convinced it will. Sure, we might be using different tools that Facebook or Twitter, but the way we communicate with our customers is changing for many small businesses and I'm convinced it's going to continue. You might be interested to know that Facebook, Blogging, and Twitter round out the top three social media channels according to the survey. If you'd like to read more about it, here's eMarketer's take. What do you think? Is social media a great resource for small business?