Social media is a great way for companies to reach an active, engaged audience and grow a community around its product and values. For small business owners, adding a new social platform (or even just getting started) can feel overwhelming – one more thing added to the never-ending to-do list. It’s often easier to stick with what you know instead of diving into something new. 

With the majority of US adults active on one or more social media platforms, social media is here to stay – and will only keep evolving and growing; so, it’s important that small businesses and start-ups make social media an integral part of their marketing mix.

But getting started with social media doesn’t have to be a herculean task. Below are five steps any business can take to get started with – or improve its already existing – social media marketing.

STEP 1: Choose Your Channels
It can be so tempting to set up every channel for marketing your small business. But do you really need to be on all of them? The short answer is no. Not every business has to be on every social platform.

Before you decide what platforms you need and which ones you can ignore for now, you must figure out where your users are/are most likely to be. While it may seem obvious based on your offering – restaurants showing beautifully styled food on Instagram, for example, it’s only worth putting the time and effort of creating and maintaining a channel if the people you want to reach are already engaging on that channel. The channels where your target customers are spending their time are the ones where you should focus your budget and content production.  

Once you determine the social media channels that are important to your customers, it’s time to get an understanding of what each platform is, how it works, and how you might be able to use it to reach your business marketing and brand goals.

Most small businesses will end up with a mix of channels, which will mostly likely include a combination of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or YouTube. Brands going after a youth market may want to look at how Snapchat could help them grow. Brands with a tech-focused audience may consider building a community on Reddit, while an e-commerce fashion label may invest their time heavily on Pinterest.

STEP 2: Do Your Homework
What are your competitors doing on social media channels? Other small businesses in your town? Is it working or is it falling on deaf ears?

When working with a new client, I always do a bit of competitive research – looking at companies in the same industry, but also looking at companies that are trying to reach the same audience. For a local bakery, this may mean looking at other small bakeries in the surrounding area and beyond, but also looking at what other businesses in the specific town are doing to reach local people and get them to come into their stores.

While there are paid tools out there that can help you understand the actual impact of a competitor’s social media results, you and your team can get a good idea of how the content is doing by looking at the engagement – that’s the likes/reactions, comments, and shares per post – on the most recent social media posts. I like to go back at least three months in a timeline when I’m doing this type of research.

This kind of research gives you an idea of the type of content that is resonating with the people that you are trying to reach and also helps to create a smart recommendation for the direction you might want to go with your own content.

STEP 3: Make a Plan

One of the things I hear the most from brands and businesses of all sizes is that they have no time for social media. To be fair, it can be a time-consuming enterprise.

Set yourself up for success by building a social media calendar – an Excel spreadsheet or Google sheet works great – to plan the content you’ll be sharing on your social platforms.  In creating the calendar, take into account not just events that you are hosting or sales that you are having, but think about national and local holidays, seasonal events, and don’t forget those hashtag holidays. National Pizza Day, anyone?

Setting aside a couple of hours every week or so to plan and schedule content ahead of time can help take some of the pressure off small business owners and help ensure a unified message across all the channels they are using. If your business is able to make it one person’s responsibility, do that and hold that person accountable. Creating all the content – taking photos, making videos, writing copy – can be a team effort, but having one person who keeps track of everything and is charged with making sure it gets posted can go a long way in making sure your content gets posted.

STEP 4: Create Quality Content with a Consistent Style and Voice
Content quality matters. As consumers are increasingly savvy, their expectations of content are high. Brands need to make sure the content they create makes sense for the brand and, specifically, on the platform where people are seeing the content. No one likes something that looks like YouTube pre-roll popping up in his or her Instagram feed. To stand out on social platforms, businesses of all sizes need to have quality content, use the right hashtags for their audience, and tailor content to the platforms. 

While big brands have spent a lot of time and money and thousands of man-hours developing their brands, small businesses aren’t always able to prioritize this. It’s important, however, that people understand who you are at a glance and that they come to recognize your content whenever they see it, no matter where they are seeing or reading that content.

Spend some time thinking about how you want your business to be perceived, what feeling you want people to come away with after seeing your social media posts (or visiting your website or hearing your radio spot). Think about what your brand should look like, and keep your images consistent. On Instagram, for example, this might mean using only one or two filters, limiting your color palette, or making sure you have one color or element that shows up in all of your posts. Think about what your brand should “sound” like and create copy that will read in that voice. What you choose to do depends on your brand.

STEP 5: Evaluate Your Performance
Once you’ve determined which social media platforms you’ll be using, you need to set goals and KPIs (key performance indicators) for each channel. This is how you will be able to tell what content is working, which channels are performing well for you, and whether or not you are making the best use of your time and resources.

So, how do you know if your content is working on the social media channels you’ve chosen? You measure it. On the back end of the social media channels you are most likely to be using for your small business, there are tools, available for both organic content and paid posts, to give you insight into the performance of each post and the overall account when it comes to things like reach (the number of unique people who see the post), impressions (the number of times the post is seen), and engagement (the number of interactions – reactions, likes, shares, comments – with the post). For example, if the goal behind starting an Instagram account for your small business is to increase the number of people who view the photos and are, therefore, aware of your business, you would want to set reach and impressions as your KPIs for that channel. If your goal for Facebook is to get people talking about your product and services, you would set engagement as a metric and look for comments and reactions on your posts to gauge this performance.

Following up on what is or isn’t working will help you determine future content calendar and creative asset needs and give you insight into how each channel is working for you. The beauty of social media marketing is that you are able to adjust your plan and create new content fairly quickly to ensure that it resonates more deeply your target audience.