When I meet small business owners and tell them about my work with social media, a lot of them ask me how they should be using social media to grow their business. Before I answer that question, I usually ask them about what they're already doing. The responses are often along the lines of:
"We have a Twitter handle and a Facebook page"
"I setup a Google+ page for my business!"
At this point, I have to ask them: But did you start by listening?
Listening is the most basic and the most underrated social media activity for any small business. And it's important to start listening even before you decide which social networks to focus your business presence on.
Step 1: Know where your audience is.
If you're ready to build a community online, the first thing you should do is figure out where your audience is.
Spend time listening on a few networks. Listen to discussions around industry trends, look for relevant keywords and conversations around your business and your competitors.
For instance, if I were running a local pizzeria, I'd listen to conversations about good food in and around town. I'd figure out where these conversations happen most often. I'd also check out a few specific foodie networks (such as Epicurious, Foodily or Open Source Food) to see if they are more popular among foodies in my city.
Once I have some idea which networks my business can benefit from, I'd focus my efforts there.
And remember, don't spread yourself too thin by trying to be on every network just because a competitor is. Decide what makes sense for your business. Focus on no more than 2 or 3 networks.
Step 2: Gather insights.
Conversations in which people are talking about your business are a source of direct feedback. But even if you don't come across any such conversations, proactive listening still helps.
You can gather important insights about your target audience, industry influencers (people who share their opinions and knowledge about your industry online), competitors, as well as the local and global trends for your industry.
As a pizzeria owner, listening can help me find answers to questions like:
What are the most popular, most-talked-about places for food in my town?
What are the issues that matter most to foodies in my town?
What kind of food experiences do they look for?
How do I reach and engage influencers such as food bloggers?
Of course, I'd need time, attention, and filtering skills to find the answers. But I'd be able to use some of these insights to make decisions about my own business - such as whether I should change existing menu options or add new ones, what kind of deals or offers are likely to work, how I can organize social events that create a buzz online, and so on.
Step 3: Engage and participate.
Each social network has its own language and unspoken rules. For example, knowing when and how to intervene in conversations without appearing intrusive. The only way to learn how to participate is by listening.
Keep in mind that all such interactions must provide some value to the participants involved, and not just be about trying to sell something. No one likes to hear from a person or business that only cares about pushing their own agenda.
So, what kind of conversations should you participate in?
Conversations that directly mention your business: Reach out and acknowledge these. Respond to feedback. Make amends for any errors. Offer thanks for praise or compliments.
Conversations that (only) mention competitors: Jumping into a conversation that mentions a competitor can make you seem rude and aggressive. Avoid this unless absolutely necessary.
Conversations with customers and influencers: If you're listening to and following your customers as well as key influencers, you might want to reach out and interact with them.
These conversations can be about anything: they don't have to be about your products, business or domain. Start with a friendly hello, interact on topics and content that they might be interested in (you'd be able to guess some of these from listening) and participate in existing conversations they've initiated. Focus on building relationships through meaningful conversations and content.
Conversations around news and trends: Some brands are able to capture attention by creating content around news events and trends that their audience cares about.
For example, @DiGiornoPizza (Yes, pizza again. Sorry if I have you craving some!) sparked a lot of conversations with their tweet during the Super Bowl this year:
YO, THIS GAME IS LIKE A DIGIORNO PIZZA BECAUSE IT WAS DONE AFTER TWENTY MINUTES #SuperBowI #SuperSmack #DiGiorNOYOUDIDNT
— DiGiorno Pizza (@DiGiornoPizza) February 3, 2014
It isn't always easy to come up with creative ideas for events in real time. To do this, you'll need to listen and be clued in to the trending topics. You'll also need a rather large dose of creativity. Get creative only if you're really sure you understand your audience as well as the context.
Tip: Use a listening tool such as Tweetdeck that lets you focus on multiple conversation streams at the same time. That way, you can selectively participate in some conversations while listening to all of them.
Step 4: Build a culture of listening.
Most public social networks such as Twitter have a search interface that lets anyone stay tuned in to search terms from their accounts, even if they don't have access to publish on behalf of your business.
As a business owner, you should always be the Chief Listening Officer for your business. But real value comes from going a step further and building a culture of listening. A team that's tuned in and knows what customers really want, can do a good job of filling the gaps and keeping them happy.