Whenever a big brand name has a great Facebook post or an insightful Twitter thread, there's a common response, “Give this intern a raise!” Perhaps interns ran social media accounts a decade ago. But today, a carefully considered social media strategy is an essential aspect of marketing a business. It's common for entire teams to support a brand's social media presence, sinking untold hours into making the process look effortless from the outside.
If you're running a small business, it can be tough to know where to start with social media. Sure, you know how to post your own personal Instagram updates, but how should your voice change when you represent a brand? Should it change when multiple people represent it? What engagement data do you need to track? Should you bother getting your brand on LinkedIn?
We asked a bevvy of social media experts, marketing directors, small business owners, and even a university professor what are the best moves and worst mistakes a business could make when it comes to social media.
One common theme is how social media accounts need to be personalized to each business's unique audience, so we can't give you exact answers for everything your business needs individually. But, if you know the best practices and approaches to take, you'll have the tactics you need to blow everyone away. Even if they'll still assume you're just an intern.
Here's our entire list of social media tips — you can click on each tip to jump right to the one that interests you, or just keep scrolling down to read each tip in turn.
- Audit your audience — What does your audience want out of a social media account?
- Build a social media calendar — A buffer of content lets you post on time, all the time.
- Pick your platforms — You can't be everywhere.
- Get a splashy banner image — A great image is the best way to grab attention.
- Don’t overload on posts — You want a gentle sprinkling, not a fire hose.
- Tailor content to the platform — Not all platforms are the same.
- Don't buy followers — Pay-for-play just isn't worth the price.
- Stay on brand — Consistency is key, so stick to your brand aesthetic.
- Prepare your responses — Build a list of drafted statements, and maybe even a flow chart.
- Steer complaints off social media — Social media can't beat a dedicated customer service team.
Going the Extra Mile:
- Consider how you use video — Some brands love video, but it's not a one-size-fits-all format.
- Try out user-generated content — Sky-high engagement with little effort? It's not a bad idea.
- Be opinionated — You can't sound too market-tested.
- Repurpose when possible — If a post works on one platform, can it work on another?
You might be tempted to jump right in and starting posting up a storm. But you'd be missing the planning stage. You'll need to know what your audience wants, who they are, and what social media platforms they actually use. Here's how to start.
Build a profile of what your audience likes and what they want out of social media. Some want great visuals, some want to laugh, some want functionality.
To find out what your specific audience is after, use data from sources like Google Analytics. Combine this with deeper internal knowledge gained from direction interaction with your customers: Scheduling a few quick check-ins with your sales or product teams might shed some light on their first-hand knowledge of the business's customer profiles.
If you already have social media accounts set up, you can gain insights about your customers' interests by tracking their moves with UTM parameters, the snippets of code added to the end of a URL that let you know whether a viewer, say, arrived at your website from Twitter. Here's what that Twitter-specific UTM might look like, taken from an article by marketing and software company Hubspot about creating effective email campaigns:
Don't forget to let your audience profiles evolve alongside your company. As you continue developing your social media strategy, tools such as UTM parameters let you keep adding data.
“UTM parameters for social media are essential. Those help with strategy, so you know what social media accounts are driving traffic to your website. How do you know if Instagram is sending more people to your website compared to Facebook? Well, you need UTM parameters.
[…] The amount of data you can get on social media is amazing. If you're not using any of that you're really missing out on such a large opportunity, strategically, to progress your brand.”
By building a calendar, you can give yourself at least a few weeks’ worth of content as a buffer, so you can post on time, all the time. Here's where all that audience research from the previous point comes into play. You'll need to have a working understanding of your audience in order to know what type of content to layer into your calendar.
The inverse of this strategy is to just keep running the same boring quotes and one-liners that no one wants to see. If you don't plan for a dynamic calendar, you'll wind up with placeholder content, and that's even worse than nothing at all.
Here's how Adam Hempenstall, founder and CEO at Better Proposals, puts it: “By far the worst social media practice that I’ve seen is companies that maintain their profiles on Facebook and LinkedIn (predominantly these two) just for the sake of having them. They re-hash the same content for months, they get zero likes, shares or comments and yet they keep on doing the exact same thing over and over again.”
A content calendar helps social media managers get a bird's-eye view of an entire month or two of posts, letting them quickly address any holes in their coverage.
“Planning and scheduling a content calendar ahead of time for your social portals can help you to get ahead of the curve, and avoid running out of ideas and inspiration for posts; as well as ensuring that you keep to a regular, reliable posting schedule to engage your audience and keep them interested.”
~Polly Kay, Senior Marketing Manager at English Blinds
Small businesses can’t be everywhere. What fits your needs best: Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, TikTok? Twitter might work well for jokes, but it might be best for breaking news, too. Meanwhile, Reddit could work for troubleshooting and Q&As.
Experiment with new platforms, and slow the updates if you aren't seeing the growth you need. Even a pet rescue business — which has possibly the most adorably photogenic “product” of any business — might not take off across all social platforms. Seattle's Emerald City Pet Rescue tried out YouTube, but didn’t get much traction and stopped after four videos, shifting focus to Facebook, where they currently have over 100k followers.
More isn't always better. You'll need to devote precious time to every platform you're on. If your social media team comprises just one or two people, you may find yourself stretched thin if you try to stay active across more than three platforms.
Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are the most common networks, but the best way to determine which are for your business is to check out your competition. What are other businesses in your industry doing, and where are they most popular?
Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn are all big on the banner image: A landscape photo that’s your one chance to immediately grab the attention of someone who visits your page.
Ideally, your image should be a high-quality photograph or graphic that represents the best of your brand. But there are a lot of different tacks to take. General Electric has a good basic banner: It has welded together four different images to hit a representative (if a little staid) tone.
Temporary banners can help you send a message that's too complicated to fit in a bio. Here's a banner Cadbury used to highlight a charitable campaign, for instance.
Seasonal social media campaigns can take advantage of the extra space a banner offers, too. The spooky Halloween banner from Starbucks' always-stellar social team is a great example.
Finally, don't forget that different social media platforms use different banner sizes. You might not be able to use the same graphic design on a banner that you plan to use on both Facebook and Twitter. Charmin's Facebook banner looks great, but the painfully cropped Twitter version is a cautionary tale.
Once you're up and running, you'll need to keep a list of dos and don'ts in the back of your mind. Social media trends move pretty fast. If you don't stop to take advantage, you might miss them. Here's what to know.
Business accounts that retweet every single use of their hashtag are just spamming their audience.
One to three posts a day is likely fine, but the right number can vary. Too many and you'll lose engagement while annoying your core followers. Too few, and they'll forget about you. You'll need to experiment to find your specific social posting Goldilocks zone.
When in doubt, err on the side of caution. Think about how frequently you would want to hear from all the businesses in your life. MoonPie has only tweeted four times this month, for example. It has a brand name to uphold, and only the highest quality weird tweet can be allowed. A good social media calendar can help over-enthusiastic social media managers keep their posting habits in check.
“One of the most common mistakes when managing social media accounts is posting far too often; one of the worst things you can do is spam your audience as this is a sure way to lose followers.”
~Steve Pritchard, Digital Marketing Consultant for Africa Travel
You’ll have different audiences on each platform, so you’ll need to repeat a version of your general audience audit, getting more specific for each platform. Twitter jokes aren’t for every platform: Moonpie is famed on Twitter for its offbeat tweets, but has just 12 followers on its appropriately buttoned-up LinkedIn account.
Look brian i just write the tweets https://t.co/6KiML9a1la
— MoonPie (@MoonPie) October 2, 2019
Tailoring your content can mean tweaking the style you write with or changing the type of content you showcase on each platform. Context is everything.
“Make sure you’re engaging them within the context of when they’re interested, whether that’s LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram,” says David LaVine, marketing consultant and founder of RocLogic Marketing, LLC. “When they’re trying to relax and be entertained, they may not want to learn about a new way to reduce their manufacturing waste, and when they’re focused on work-related topics, they may not be interested in the top 5 ways to make their house more eco-friendly.”
And whatever you do, don't just try to spam everyone's feed with links away from the social platform. Getting on social media is about meeting your audience where they are — not dragging them to your website.
“When people are on Twitter and Instagram, they're browsing quickly. If you're a consumer-facing company, your audience is looking for fun casual content. If you're a business, your audience is looking for advice and quick wins. A properly timed link or promotion on social can lead to huge wins, but don't just post links. If your feed is just links or promotions, you won't gain followers.”
~Sydney Liu, cofounder and CEO of social writing platform Commaful
Buying fake followers is a quick way to juice your social media numbers, and was once even a common, accepted tactic for growth hacking your way to success.
Today, though, that's more than frowned upon.
In 2018, an exposé from The New York Times revealed one bot seller had delivered 200 million Twitter followers to 39,000 customers including influencers, journalists, and the advisor to Ecuador's president, Lenín Moreno. It brought the issue to mainstream attention, spurring platforms to respond.
Major social media platforms now regularly cull their bot populations, and Twitter will even suspend accounts that it finds have purchased fake followers. On top of all that, it's not even good for your business, since it won't boost the numbers that really matter: Engagement in the form of likes, retweets, or comments.
Now that bots are out of the picture, different schemes to snare followers have sprung up, like the “follow-tree” contest described below. These tactics aren't unethical, but they're not smart. The truth remains that the only path to a healthy social media presence is to earn your followers with quality content.
“One bad piece of advice I've seen floating around online is marketers should get involved with follow-tree contests. This is where you pay to have your name included on a list of people. Everyone who wants to enter a contest, to win your money and the others on the list, follows you. This is a great way to lose $1K or whatever the entry fee was, and to gain a few hundred or thousand uninterested followers who either won't engage or will unfollow you quickly after the contest period is over.”
~Stacy Caprio, Founder at Growth Marketing
Consistency is key, so stick to your brand aesthetic.
Instagram in particular loves any account that can adhere to a specific visual tone. Entirely black and white or heavy filters are probably a little too much, but you may want to settle on a few main colors to fall back on. The Lush Cosmetics company's Instagram has a brand image with plenty of earthy, textured, green or brown images of nature and their products.
And staying on brand means staying away from a hard sell: You're here to remind audiences that your brand is cool, not to directly monetize it.
“The greatest long-term value of using social media for business is to build brand awareness and improve brand perception, and this should be prioritized over and above direct selling. Social media users don’t respond well to a hard sell approach on the platforms they use to hang out and socialize, and tend to develop a high degree of selective blindness to ads, and paid and promoted posts too.”
~Polly Kay, Senior Marketing Manager at English Blinds
Sarah Evans, owner of digital branding company Sevans Strategy, notes that brands should see themselves as a source of “useful info rather than self promotion.” The Snuggie Twitter account is one example of the relentless promotion that you'd want to avoid. Every tweet directly promotes the product and even includes the “®” after every use of the name.
Couch swallow your remote again? Fear not, Snuggie®’s convenient pockets always keep your remote in reach! pic.twitter.com/rO94IiVY6N
— Snuggie® Blanket (@OriginalSnuggie) January 30, 2016
“It’s almost immediately off-putting, if a brand is only talking about themselves. The audience is very sensitive to whether a brand's messages are authentic, convenient and helpful for the reader. The harsh truth is that blatant promotional tone on social media is extremely annoying and will make your brand disappear in the sea of self-promotion that no-one wants to see.”
~Sarah Evans, owner at Sevans Strategy
Audiences expect engagement, so figure out what types of responses you’ll offer and learn how best to answer common questions.
You're not going to literally copy and paste the exact official statement into every response, but having a draft can give you a headstart that will make sure you respond efficently and appropriately. Maybe you can start an internal Q&A list in a Google Doc that the rest of the team can consult when needed.
You should aim to mirror the tone of the customer. If they're lodging a complaint, you'll need to be respectful, and if they're playfully mocking the business, you'll want to offer a similar wisecrack.
If you want to get more advanced, you can map out a social media response matrix, which is essentially a big flow chart. It helps social media managers figure out the best series of responses, based on the answers given by the customer they're interacting with.
“[A response matrix] is important for companies to have because it keeps you consistent, organized and accountable about how to act in various situations that are bound to take place online.”
~Adam Kleinberg, CEO at interactive advertising agency Traction, told the American Marketing Association
Getting the occasional disgruntled complaint posted straight to your Facebook feed or slapped as a comment on the top of your latest Instagram photo is inevitable.
You should definitely plan out a measured, fair response to common complaints when you're compiling your list of responses as per the previous tip. But there's another important rule of thumb to keep in mind: It's best to help out the customer somewhere descrete, like email or a phone call.
Hey Carrie. Definitely not what we like to see. Can you DM us here: https://t.co/YZQw8Eh8sN so we can look into what happened and make it right? -Christine
— Comcast (@comcast) October 28, 2019
This is an essential practice for two reasons. First, the social media team simply isn't fully equipped to handle complaints, and should point customers towards the support team for the best customer service. Second, a lengthy back and forth between an official business account and a less-than-satisfied customer can send the wrong message to your audience on social.
“You should promptly answer this kind of [disgruntled] comment, but you should also try to quickly take the conversation out of Facebook or Twitter. Do not escalate the conversation on your social media channels. You don't want your whole community to witness this. Just apologize and try to continue the conversation via chat, phone or email.
This will avoid lots of drama. Your social media channels shouldn't be a place where you try to solve each and every customer's issues, but a place where you can introduce your followers to new products, features and content.”
~Gregory Golinski, head of digital marketing at YourParkingSpace.co.uk
Going the Extra Mile
Once you have the basics under your social media belt, it's time to get fancy. You'll want to dabble in new formats and mediums. You can try launching a new campaign centered around encouraging your users to offer some content of their own. Here are the top tips for businesses that want their social media to go above and beyond.
Video isn't for all businesses: It's expensive to get a professional version, and you won't want an amateur one. Plus, it's simply not a fit for some brands. We won't want to see Charmin's toilet paper in action in the real world.
Red Bull's Facebook page loves video so much that even the banner is a video (yes, you can do that). Snowboarders, mountain bikers, breakdancers who are on fire: If it looks extreme and requires a lot of core strength, it's a great fit for Red Bull, making video a natural medium for their brand.
🚁 cavemanning out of a helicopter onto the burj al arab🤯 tricking it out on some of dubai’s most famous landmarksall captured on camera for our viewing pleasure 👏
Posted by Red Bull on Monday, October 28, 2019
Video isn't necessarily a winning tactic for social media, either, despite what you might have heard: Facebook recently agreed to a $40 million settlement over a lawsuit claiming it inflated its average view times by as much as 900 percent.
If you're ready to commit to a video series, you'll need a quality camera, lights, someone who can set up shots, and an editor who can knit everything together. And, if you're Red Bull, someone to ramp a bicycle out of a helicopter.
When your audience creates content, there's one obvious benefit: It's less work for you. But it also makes for boosted engagement from fans interested in getting a little extra attention, and the content that they create is often fascinatingly creative or offbeat and always authentic. It’s a win-win-win.
Encourage your audience to share stories with a hashtag or ask them to take a photo of their favorite purchase from your store. To do it, you'll just need to stick a quick sentence in your bio. Here's how nail polish brand Essie phrases it on their Instagram.
There's one catch: Results will vary based on your product. If you sell concrete mix, the final product might not be photogenic enough to get your audience posting pics. But for a business like noissue, which sells sustainable and brandable packaging materials, its users can offer a variety of beautiful, Instagrammable packages. Here are nine images from its Instagram; All but one are from noissue's satisfied customers.
“Curating content from your audience is a great way to generate a rich amount of content at very little cost, while simultaneously building an intimate community by involving them in your branding and messaging. On our Instagram, for example, we've grown our following to over 100k using almost exclusively user-generated content. It's beautiful, unique, on-brand, and customers love to see their photos shared on the platform.”
~Abigail Davidson, a Marketing Consultant working with noissue sustainable, brandable packaging
Whether it’s particularly clever or particularly dumb, a fresh approach will keep social media audiences coming back for more. The only goal: Don't be boring.
Humor is always a good go-to, according to Steve Pritchard, digital marketing consultant for Africa Travel, who told me that one common mistake is taking up a serious tone: “Even if you're posting about the fantastic sale you currently have on your website, communicating this in a funny or entertaining way and making your followers smirk will always be remembered.”
Don't shy away from strong opinions. Here's a joke that the science fiction publisher Tor.com tweeted in the form of their own film pitch hot take, for example.
We're not saying that The Batman should just be a buddy comedy between Riddler and Clayface. But it should. https://t.co/tsnsLrYrGh
— Tor.com (@tordotcom) October 17, 2019
In short, you want to have a point of view. Done right, you'll humanize your brand, better engage your audience, and rise to the top on social media platforms.
“One of my best tips for using social media as a business is to be opinionated. This is tricky, since most people have enough disagreement in their lives as it is. But if you don't share an opinion, your feed usually comes across as a big bowl of boring — which no one wants on social media.
This doesn't mean you should weigh in on every hot topic, and it certainly doesn't give license to express abusive, insensitive, or discriminatory attitudes. It just means your brand should present more than bland cardboard cutouts when entering social channels.”
~Stephen Taylor, Director of Communications, WISER Systems, Inc.
Finally, don't forget that social media content can always be expanded or pushed in a new direction to emerge as a totally new concept. If a joke or quote works on Twitter, consider if it's right for your audience on Instagram. A simple screencap might work, but you also might want to revise it entirely.
Taken to an extreme, content repurposing can even lead to an entirely new type of content. Maybe you sell wool socks and one customer comments on social media that they enjoyed wearing them on a recent round-the-world sailing trip, and you can reach out to see if they'd want to appear on your podcast.
You can reach out to customers who have their own businesses, too: eCommerce website Threadless regularly runs articles spotlighting creative artists in their community, like this interview with the artist behind Paperback Paradise, a fun Twitter account that photoshops vintage paperback book covers.
You can even re-share content that wouldn't otherwise be seen anyone, like a glowing customer review. Here's how the fast-growing kettleball company Kettlebell Kings fully benefited from its reviews.
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 star review from Lawrence O. https://t.co/KCsesA5FiW
— Kettlebell Kings (@KB_Kings) October 27, 2019
“One of the ways we have built a great social community is by sharing customer reviews and experiences of our products by re-sharing their candid posts on social media. This would include photos or videos of them using the product directly with a quote for them and thanking them for their share in the caption.”
Jay Perkins, cofounder of Kettlebell Kings
Next Steps Ramping Up Your Digital Marketing
Now you have the essential elements of running a successful social media campaign for your business. Building an organic audience across all your social media platforms is key to a healthy online presence. But assuming you have a healthy number of followers, you can get even more reach through another marketing arm, paid marketing.
Don't forget the other essentials of digital marketing, either: Search engine marketing can benefit from an investment in pay-per-click ads, and display ads can also capture a unque slice of the audience you're after.
To dig deeper into these options, try filling out Tech.co's quick digital marketing quotes form, which can connect you to more services designed to expose your brand to the exact audiences who will love it.
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