06/06/2012 07:45 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2012

How to Build a Social Media Brand

Social media has leveled the playing field for small business owners in today's marketing environment. It's all about two-way communication with customers. Building a social media brand is a major factor in small business success, but the key is being niche focused. Beyond having a website, you need to make sure that you are out there demonstrating your expertise and dominating your niche at every opportunity. No one is calling 411 or looking in the yellow pages for vendors, it's all about what comes up in the search engines. Don't forget about LinkedIn, too. Many experts, consultants and professional service providers are sourced through LinkedIn. Here are the answers to the top 10 questions on how to build a social media brand.

How important is an online brand to a small business owner?

Once a month people should Google themselves to see what is out there on the internet about their business. If nothing comes up in the search engines, that is a problem too. Start building online credibility with a LinkedIn profile and a helpful website. I would also add a Twitter account, Google+ profile, and Facebook Fan page as well. Retailers and service businesses should have a Yelp profile too.

What is the biggest mistake small businesses make when building an online brand?

You must consistently talk to the same customer online every time you share content and understand that it takes seven contacts to make an impression. Many people think it's going to start raining money in their small business as soon as they start using social media. Not so! It's like building any other relationship. It took me two years of tweeting, blogging and sharing other people's information to be recognized nationally.

How does one go about developing a strategy to build a brand online?

Start with three C's of social media Content + Community = Commerce. Your content is currency in social media. Once you pick a target audience, you must listen first to find out where they are spending time online. Then you must use your content to become part of the conversation on that social networking site. When you start to engage with people by sharing their content and commenting on blogs, that's when you starting building community. Once you have established trust within your online community that's when you can sell to them. If you try to sell too quickly, you will torch the relationship. Think of social networking as "Give to Get."

Can you explain what you call "The Triple ROI of Social Media"?

• Return on Investment: All social media accounts are free. Your investment is your time. A smart social media program returns the time you put in, in terms of engagement with customers and prospects as well as word-of-mouth referrals.
• Return on Influence: By sharing quality content, small business owners build influence, which they can eventually monetize online and offline.
• Return on identity: Everything in social media is about building your brand identity.

What is the HELP mantra?

The HELP mantra is how I think small business owners should approach social media: Help Others, Engage People, Listen Carefully and Promote Yourself With Care. Traditional selling is dead. Use a 4:1 ratio of sharing other people's content over your own. Your content will do the selling for you. No one will engage you if you lead with "Buy my stuff, buy my stuff." They will always respond to great stories about how you can solve their painful business issues.

What is your best advice for a business owner trying to build their brand online?

Before you do anything, clearly identify your niche target customer. Research the keywords people use most to search for your topic, service or product. Then develop your content strategy to stand out amongst your competition. If you are planning to use blogging as your strategy, start working on an archive of blog posts at least three months in advance so writing does not feel stressful to you.

How important is it to choose the right social networks? Which ones work best for what, ie. LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, Tumblr etc.?

Everyone does not have to be doing everything. Twitter is a terrific listening device and is great for driving traffic to a blog. I convene my #Smallbizchat community live each week on Twitter, which has been a major factor in growing my online audience. LinkedIn is the most formal social network. It's perfect for people who need to network with key decision makers. Facebook groups and fan pages are great for engaging with retail customers. Google+ is also becoming a major factor in communicating with your entire social rolodex. Don't forget about Pinterest too. If you have lots of great visuals Pinterest is perfect for target customers with that interest. Tumblr lets you effortlessly share anything. You can post text messages, photos, quotes, links, music and video from email and from any devices. If you use blogging as a key strategy, any of these accounts will help you spread the word.

Should a small business owner stay on message at all times? Is it ever okay to go off message?

It is critical to stay on message in social media. It should be obvious who your customer is by what you share online or what you write on your blog. If you change your message too often, you will confuse people. It's ok to share personal things about yourself, so that people know that you are a real person, but be strategic.

Are there any special tools or apps on any social media sites that you would recommend? why?

I like to manage all my social media accounts. You can have up to 5 social accounts with the free version, but if someone is helping you with social media you may want to invest in a pro account.

How does one go about earning a community of subscribers, followers, friends, etc?

Engagement is key. If someone leaves a comment on your blog, respond back quickly. In order to attract subscribers, followers, likes and connections you need to give them what they want - valuable content. Then, engage the people who like your content. Highlight a fan each week on your Facebook fan page, run a contest on Twitter. Be first to answer questions on LinkedIn to highlight your expertise.

This post originally appeared on Succeed As Your Own Boss