Facebook. Instagram. Pinterest. Myspace. Bebo. There are more than 200 social-networking sites active across the globe, hosting trillions of conversations and billions of gigabytes of data. Over the past few years, small businesses have begun to harness the power of these networks to talk about their brand, engage customers, drive leads and ramp up sales. But there are a few hard-and-fast rules that business owners should adhere to if they want to avoid going from social hero to hapless zero.
AVOID THE HARD SELL Coupons, discounts and competitions work well on social media. "Buy now" does not. "You want to create content that people find fun and want to share," says Amelia Harvey, founder of Collective, a yogurt manufacturer. "We never say, 'We're on promotion', or 'Go buy us'. We do talk about new flavours and new stockists but only in a way that informs and helps out our customers, never in a 'selling' way." Ms Harvey and fellow ex-Gu executive Mike Hodgson launched Collective in 2011.
The pair have used the company's social media feedback to get her products in front of new supermarket buyers. "It's incredibly compelling to have all these positive interactions with our customers - mostly unsolicited too. Being able to demonstrate the power of the brand to new stockists is probably one of the reasons why we're the fastest-growing yogurt brand in the UK right now." Collective's products are currently stocked in big stores such as Sainsbury's, Tesco, Morrisons, Boots and Waitrose and the business now turns over pounds 3.7m a year.
BE VISUAL "We spend upwards of pounds 20,000 each year on photographing and watermarking our products and share most of these images online," says Paul Charalambous, founder of Lego reseller Firestar Toys. "We are incredibly lucky to have a product that people want to look at and talk about to their friends." Firestar Toys currently boasts 45,000 Facebook fans, nearly 3,000 Twitter followers, and "pins" pictures regularly on Pinterest and Instagram as well as running a Google+ page. "We post cool Lego stuff on a daily basis," says Mr Charalambous. "We're probably most active on Facebook and Twitter but you have to be on Google+ because it's run by the biggest search engine in the world." Firestar Toys' visual approach to social media caught the attention of Fox Studios earlier this year. "We can customise Lego mini-figures to look like real people and are one of the only companies in the world with the sheer volumes of parts - such as hair, accessories, torsos - it takes to build a customised figure," says Mr Charalambous. "We can then print directly on to the figure or add branded T-shirts."
Firestar Toys shares images of these customisations on Facebook and Twitter and when an executive from Fox Studios was looking for bespoke Lego figures, these turned up in a Google Images search. "The studio had just wrapped up filming The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock, and wanted to create 50 Lego mini-figures of the two leads to give away to the cast," says Mr Charalambous. "We shipped the order and are now the official supplier of Lego figures for Fox." Martin McLaughlin, co-founder of pounds 1.2m-turnover popcorn maker Love Da Popcorn, also evangelises the benefits of running visual campaigns on social media.
"We put out a challenge asking people to post a photo that they believed truly represented our brand," he says. "A girl sent in a picture of her in a bath of popcorn, wearing a top hat, holding a glass of champagne and a pack of our sea salt and black pepper flavour. The image went viral, attracting nearly 6m hits. It was an incredible piece of free publicity for the business." DRILL
DOWN INTO YOUR DATA Social-media strategy should never be decided on a wing and a prayer. According to Shingo Murakami, managing director of Rakuten's Play.com, a global e-commerce retailer of music, films, books and clothes, it's all about using data to devise smart social campaigns. "Businesses should utilise customer insights from social media and tailor messages for consumers based on personal preferences and interests. We track individual fans to create much more targeted email communications based on a combination of social data and traditional customer relationship management data," says Murakami.
Rakuten's Play.com is reaping the rewards of this data-centric strategy; its social interactions are now contributing directly to sales: "We're able to measure the value of socially engaged fans versus those who have purchased directly via our website and our findings reveal that average revenue increases by 24pc once an existing customer becomes a fan," says Mr Murakami."
Moreover, by crunching its sales data, Rakuten's Play.com has discovered its customers are 30pc more valuable over the following six months if they are acquired via social media, compared with customers acquired through traditional online channels. Take conversation into the real world Smart business owners everywhere are taking the insights derived from social media and turning them into real-world actions.
When Love Da Popcorn's Mr McLaughlin was trying to decide whether to use paper or plastic for his product packaging, he turned to his Facebook fans for help. "Whenever we have questions about new flavours or little tweaks to the business, we always involve our community," he says. "About 10pc of our fans usually respond." In this case, the people chose paper over plastic, which was the ideal fit for the brand's retro-style look and feel.
Crowd-sourcing answers to challenges is one way to make use of the real-world benefits of social media but bridging the online-offline divide is also invaluable for cementing the relationship between a company and its customer. Mr McLaughlin recently launched "Operation Awesome" across all the company's social media platforms to see if the brand could successfully engage with customers offline as well.
"When someone posts a picture of themselves with our popcorn on Twitter or Facebook, we do 'something awesome' in return," he explains. "It's a kind of 'good deed generator'. We've given blood, released a load of helium balloons tied to lottery tickets, and even dressed the team up in silly costumes to cheer up a customer who was having a bad day." The campaign has proved so successful that it is now "logistically difficult to keep up with the volumes of posts," says Mr McLaughlin. But luckily, Love Da Popcorn has a back-up plan.
"Our Facebook community is so engaged that we're thinking of asking them to start doing awesome things on our behalf," he explains. "If we can make this work, it will be an incredible exercise in 'pass it on' good deeds. This could be truly amazing for the brand."