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Four tips to help small business owners get started with social media

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When it comes to digital marketing, email is the preferred choice for most small-business owners - but generally that means just talking to the same people over and over again.

Increasingly, business owners are turning to social media as a way to find new clients and to spread their influence across a base of untapped prospects and potential customers. If you're new to social media, these four tips will help you make a start and ensure your time is well spent:

Know your goals

Before you start, it's important to ask yourself a few questions about what it is you hope to achieve. Do you, for instance, simply want to establish a social media following? Perhaps improve your word of mouth? Do you have a specific sales or marketing aim that you hope to achieve? Are you linking this activity to offers or new services you're trying to promote? Or do you simply want to position yourself as a thought-leader in your industry?

The audience - who, what, and where?

With your goals in place, it's time to look for your audience. Your first task will be to find the social network, or combination of networks, that will maximise exposure to the kind of people you're most interested in. Do you sell a consumer product or service that would benefit from making lots of friends on Facebook, for example? Then how about filling your page with useful updates and pictures? Or is it a business service that you provide? In which case, finding and joining appropriate groups on LinkedIn, and penning useful blogs that can be promoted to those groups, would make more sense.

Go wherever you find your natural audience, see what they're already saying, ask yourself how you can contribute meaningfully to these conversations, and position yourself appropriately.

Draw up a plan

Once goals are established, and your target networks decided, it's time to plan. A social media strategy should cover every bit of activity you plan to conduct, and what you hope to achieve by doing this. The more specific a plan, the easier it will be to assess its success. It will also ensure that your social media use is something that staff buy into and isn't just something that falls by the wayside. Include targets and time to assess and analyse your project in your planning.

Be realistic

Unless you have lots of time and budget to throw at your social media activity, it pays to be realistic about how much activity you can achieve. Do you want to post two or three times a week to Facebook, perhaps tweet three or four times a week? If you find your office is straining to meet its social media targets and unearthing topics to post about is becoming a challenge, then it's time to recalibrate. Look at your rivals and other examples of best practice in your industry - you might just find it inspiring!