At a glance
By Michelle Lindsay
Social media has a lot to answer for. No longer can business owners hide behind a website or polished corporate profile. To be taken seriously, you also need a digital presence that articulates to clients and potential clients who you are and what value you can provide.
“Every business needs a strong online presence,” says Debra Sinclair, founder and director of community engagement at Liquid Mango Consulting, which specialises in helping small businesses deepen their customer relationships online.
“You need to be on the online networks where your customers and target market are spending time. It’s absolutely essential so that customers can find you, and so you can build customer loyalty and retention.”
Many people ask, however, that with so many social media platforms and brand-building tactics available, how can you create a digital presence that sets you apart? Here are six essential steps to get you started.
1. Have a social media strategy
“One of the biggest mistakes I see businesses make, in terms of digital engagement, is using social media randomly without a strategy in place,” says Sinclair.
It is important to get your social media, content plan and engagement plan aligned towards your marketing and business goals.
Steve Pell, founder and director of Thought Leadership Partners, agrees you should be clear on why you want to engage online.
“If you can’t connect it back to a key business metric that matters – whether that’s generating leads, or supporting your marketing strategy, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.”
2. Know your customer
If you want to engage with customers online you need to first work out who they are, which platforms they frequent, and what interests them.
Says Sinclair, “With social media and technology, we’ve got all the data, information and insights at our fingertips, so you can really learn a lot about people and different groups in your target audience.
“Dive in: if you’re looking to connect with millennials, get to know exactly which social platforms they’re using, how they’re using them, the type of content that resonates with them, and even the language they use.”
3. Know yourself
Pell believes the biggest challenge in developing a digital persona is the gap between how people see themselves, and how their stakeholders perceive them.
“A good starting point is actually going out and asking people how you’re positioned today. Trying to do it all in a room and then expecting people to understand you, or position you in a different way, is very, very hard and it doesn’t work.”
4. Be authentic on social media
Linked to this is being yourself online. “If you try and be someone else, then that is a major mistake. And you will not get anywhere doing it,” says Pell.
He recommends developing a personal narrative based on where you’ve come from, your purpose, how you’re different from people in similar roles or professions, and where you want to go, but he cautions against overuse.
“One problem with personal branding is that it can often sound very scripted, with elevator pitches that are repeated out of context. And that just doesn’t sound authentic. It doesn’t build trust. It doesn’t get someone to know you better.”
5. Invest time to develop a social media presence
It's important not to spread yourself too thin when developing an effective digital presence. Focus on one or two platforms that are relevant to your brand and your audience so that you can deliver quality and consistency in your strategy.
An effective digital presence takes time to cultivate and maintain. Sinclair says you should work on it every day, even if it’s just for half an hour.
“Consistency is the most important thing – you need to be creating content, publishing and engaging online as often as you can.”
She advises clients to take advantage of some of the automated tools available but says it’s important to stay personally involved.
“If you automate everything, your audience will know that you’re not there – and it’s very difficult to build relationships if you’re not on social media in real time.”
6. Connect – don’t sell
Sinclair warns against taking an overly direct approach when engaging with customers and future customers online.
“People don’t go to social media to be sold to,” she says. “They go there to be inspired and empowered and to learn. If you’re continually marketing and selling all the time, you can lose the attention of your audience.”
A successful social media strategy, like a successful business, is based on respectful and supportive two-way relationships with a genuine value exchange.
Once you’ve built that relationship, you might go from an online relationship to having a meeting with somebody, and then take it from there.