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Harness social media with these guidelines

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By now, everyone's figured out how to use social media for their business, right?

Far from it, according to some experts.

Fumbles, stumbles and faux pas remain all too frequent, they said. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram and so on can be great places to grow your customer base and build relationships. But doing so requires the right approach, plus a little bit of knowhow.

Do it wrong, and your customers may never find you online —or may not be favorably impressed when they do.

Here, then, are some basic do's and don'ts, according to some of the midstate's social media professionals.

Look before you leap

Which service or services are you going to use? What are your goals? Who is going to post what and how often? What kind of results are you looking for?

"Social media is a very public form of communication," said Cathy Jennings, "chief conversation starter" at No Pressure Networking, based just outside Carlisle in South Middleton Township, "and if you don't know what you're doing, the mistakes you make can really affect your reputation and brand."

Do your homework, she recommended. Ask your clients where they hang out and focus your efforts on the sites they prefer. Learn about potential platforms and how they work.

"Social media platforms all have their own personality and users," she said. "The social media tools most relevant and beneficial for your business will depend on your business goals, your areas of expertise and who your ideal clients or customers are."

Don't jump onto a social media platform just because your competitors are there, said Matt Woods, digital marketing analyst and research associate with JPL Integrated Communications Inc., a marketing, advertising and media production firm based in Swatara Township. Go in with a strategy. Do some planning.

Be realistic in your expectations, said Ken Mueller, owner of Inkling Media, a marketing firm based in Lancaster that emphasizes social media. Social media is about building relationships and a reputation, and that takes time.

"You're not going to get overnight results," he said.

Give presence to your presence

Your social media accounts contribute to your company's image, so they should look the part. Pictures, logos and other elements should be consistent with your company's branding.

"Make sure your profile is complete," Mueller said.

Use appropriate keywords so your profile will turn up in search results. People sometimes try too hard to be clever, he said — keep it simple and obvious.

"Save clever for something else," he said.

Link your social media pages to your core website, Woods said. Add sharing buttons to your content so people can post their favorites to their own social sites.

Spread the word

"Social media is really a digital form of word-of-mouth," Mueller said. "People can't spread the word unless they know you're there."

Over time, that can be built up online, but Mueller recommended using offline strategies as well. Put up some signs. Have your accounts listed on fliers and other literature. Have employees talk up your social media presence.

It's a conversation, not a sales pitch

The social media professionals were unanimous on this one.

"When you only broadcast information AT people, you actually alienate the very people you are trying to engage," Jennings said.

In real life, people build relationships through small talk and casual interaction, Mueller said. They don't just focus on their "brand message."

"We should use our social properties in the same way," he said. "Social media is not a campaign where you talk about you."

Have real conversations, and don't rapid-fire your posts using scheduling tools, Woods said. They will seem "fake and automated" and will annoy followers, he said.

Show some personality, and don't be boring, said Jennings.

"Be human and find creative ways of interacting with your audience," she said. "You'll attract more people if you're interesting and show interest in others than if you always play it safe."

Deal honestly with negative feedback

It's tempting to delete or ignore a negative post, but don't do it, the experts advised.

Instead, acknowledge it, and respond as appropriate, Woods said.

Deleting comments can cause a "snowball of irate consumers," he warned.

Use it

"People create accounts, then let them sit there," Mueller said. "If you're going to be on social media, use it."

Woods recommended starting conversations with followers that address trending topics.

"Make sure to be social," he said. "It is a social platform, after all."

If you end up not using an account, don't just abandon it, delete it, Woods said. Make sure a reliable employee is keeping track of passwords, he added. If an account was set up by a summer intern who has since left, it could end up being very hard to close it, he said.

The bottom line

Over time, you will be most effective in social media by being consistent and knowledgeable (and entertaining), Jennings said. That's why it's better to use one or two accounts regularly and master them, instead of spreading yourself too thin.

Don't take yourself too seriously, Mueller said. Not every business can lighten up — think funeral parlors — but generally a light touch is better, he said.

Try asking questions, Jennings suggested, and sharing information you think your audience would find interesting.

"You'll be seen," she said, "as a resource and partner rather than as one big advertisement." <

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