Every morning, I walk across the street from my townhouse and take a stroll by the San Francisco Bay. The paved pathway I amble down is a flurry of bike riders, power walkers, and locals taking their dogs out for a morning stretch.
Earlier this week, I came across a springy King Charles spaniel happily chewing on a tennis ball, when he suddenly became aware of his owner filling up his water bowl at the drinking fountain.
The dog -- who had previously been in a state of single focus bliss -- began to nervously shift his attention from the ball, to the bowl and back again. Then a bicycle blew by and the confused canine whipped around to take a look. Not sure which of these things was the most deserving of his attention, clearly stressed, and unable to make a choice, his head went from bike, to bowl, to ball and back again, over and over.
I know just how that dog feels.
And so does any small business owner or entrepreneur, who is confronted with crafting a modern marketing strategy out of the vast array of choices presented by today's social media landscape.
"I think small businesses are confused about what they should do and how they should do it," says Brian Halligan, CEO of HubSpot. "They stick their toe in the water by tweeting once a week or creating a page on Facebook, but that really doesn't work. What they need to do is jump in, ask questions, learn and fully engage."
In fact, the recent 2011 Social Media Marketing Industry Report , which surveyed 3,342 marketers, found that 48 percent of small business owners, who did engage, saw improved sales as a direct result of their social media efforts.
Mike Schultz, author of Rainmaking Conversations: Influence, Persuade, and Sell in Any Situation, says that there are benefits to marketing online but cautions that there are two social media paths a small business can pursue.
"Some people focus on the path of acquiring as many followers as they can," says Schultz. "But the other path, which is much less sexy, but leads to more money, is to focus on finding people that you could not easily find in the past and reaching out to them in the right way."
Just what is that right way? While social media mastery has many layers, the experts all agree that following five core steps is a good start to bringing social media sanity to your small business.
1. Generate an abundance of high-quality content. Be it blog posts, podcasts, ebooks, web pages, videos or webinars. The more substantial, unique and useful your content is, the more your potential customers will find you. Stuck on what kind of content to create? Ask yourself: What questions are my clients always asking me? Then write your answers to those.
2. Optimize that content for social media. Research the keywords your potential clients would use to find you and integrate those into your blog posts, page titles, blog headings, website text and any other content on your site. Google Keyword Tool provides easy research.
3. Integrate your website/blog with your social media. Publish your posts on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. In addition, post links on your social media back to your website offering free downloadable content. Blog buttons such as LinkedIn Share and TweetMeme help integrate social media.
4. Use alerts to monitor the conversation. Google Alerts notifies you when your business appears online but also helps you find journalists and bloggers in your field. Schultz suggests using Twitter Alerts as well. "One company I know of got a $250,000 sale by following up with a potential client who tweeted a general industry question," he says.
5. Measure social media marketing. Google Analytics can give you instant access to where your Web traffic is coming from, how long people are staying on your site, which pages are the most popular and whether your overall website visits are going up or down.
In an era where participating in social media has gone from being nice to necessary, it's critical to outline an overall plan for integrating social media into your marketing mix. Just remember to keep your eye on the tennis ball.
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This article originally appeared at Xero.com, online accounting software for small business.
Karen Leland is a freelance journalist, best-selling author and president of Sterling Marketing Group, where she helps businesses negotiate the wired world of today's media landscape -- social and otherwise. For questions or comments, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.