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In less than a decade, social media has gone from a teen-age fad to an indispensable part of nearly every layer of business, from recruiting to customer service to marketing and more. It is so important that Sarasota County drinkware maker Tervis has up to 10 people dedicated to social media marketing and engagement on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Simply put, businesses that fail to embrace social media are missing out on the world’s 2.4 billion social network users. But plunging into social media without a strategy, training and guidelines can be disastrous. Here are seven must-dos for getting the most from social media.

1. Pick the Right Platform

Should your business be on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, or all of the above? Social media is a business asset and should be managed as such, says Joseph Grano, founder and president of marketing agency Next-Mark in Sarasota. Social media needs to be a collaborative process that is content and marketing driven. A business’ goals need to be shared among public relations, sales and marketing departments as part of a consistent, integrated and transparent process.

Vicki Krueger, marketing communications manager at The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, advises businesses to choose a platform based on how social media fits with their marketing needs. Do you want to create awareness of your company? Drive revenue? Start a conversation?

Start small with one platform. Facebook works best for most businesses. Eight in 10 Americans who have internet access are on the platform, according to Pew Research Center, and they spend an average of 40 minutes a day scrolling their newsfeeds.

A company that produces visually interesting products, like Tervis or a bakery, also should consider showcasing its wares on Instagram. Instagram’s audience skews younger: 32 percent of online adults in America use the platform, and 59 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds are on Instagram, according to Pew Research Center.

“For most small businesses, retail and business-to-consumer companies, in particular, Facebook is the default because of its reach,” says Barbara Langdon, founder of Market Momentum in North Port, who does marketing and social media seminars for chambers of commerce and SCORE chapters in Southwest Florida.

On Facebook, set up a business page with a designated administrator. Make sure the location, website link, phone number and other pertinent information are listed. If the page is not going to be monitored around the clock, list business hours and set up an automated response to thank customers for reaching out.

Explain that someone will get back to them as soon as possible. Designate someone to handle those interactions during the workweek and after hours.

Programs such as Hootsuite and Buffer allow social media managers to simultaneously work with platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest; launch a message to all of them; and measure and engage your audience.

While visits to brand websites and home pages are down as more people find what they want and need through social media, experts still recommend keeping an attractive, functional business website. Make sure all website pages have share icons so that customers can interact on the social media platforms they prefer.

2. Choose a Social Media Manager

Social media must be managed. Smaller companies should consider outsourcing social media to professionals because it is such a critical component of marketing. Costs can vary from $300 a month to the thousands, depending on how many platforms are involved. If using staff members, make sure employees get proper training from online training programs like diygenius.com or socialmediaexaminer.com in order to track results, keep abreast of trends and monitor platforms’ tweaks to their algorithms.

Krueger says employees can be the best ambassadors and provide a genuine voice for the brand if they are trained properly. Be realistic about the amount of time social media marketing and engagement takes. If outsourcing the work, make sure the contractor understands the brand and the message.

Employees can be encouraged to share the company’s posts on their personal pages, but don’t overdo it or it looks like “stuffing the ballot box,” Langdon says.

A third option is hiring a company to establish a social media strategy and train employees on how to implement and maintain the plan, she says.

“Training starts with communicating your goals on social and discussing the voice—words as well as visuals—you use with your brand,” Krueger says. “Training is a continuous process of looking at what’s working, what’s not and measuring results. Did a particular tweet or Facebook post resonate with your audience? Talk about why.”

3. Post Regularly

Social media requires regular feeding. Industry standards suggest posting a minimum of four to five times a week on Facebook and up to 10 times a day on Twitter. 

But approaching those guidelines as a quota can be counterproductive. Companies that send a burst of tweets out at once, for example, can quickly turn off their followers. It’s far better to connect at regular intervals, and easy to do, even at odd hours, by scheduling the messages. Hootsuite or Buffer can push out content at strategic times based on the platform’s algorithms and your audience’s preferences.

“There’s no magic number for the number of times you post,” Grano says. “The key is to be visible to your audience without becoming overwhelming. Experiment with the times you post and the content you post to see how effective you are. Your audience will let you know when it’s too much or not enough.”

4. Mix It Up

Visuals are a post’s most critical element.

A strong, generic stock image can have more impact than a cluttered, poorly framed local photo.

Think about what makes your thumb stop mid-scroll on your phone when you’re on Facebook. Remember that most people access social media on mobile devices. Try posting videos, ask a question, design a quiz. Upload quality videos to Facebook instead of posting links so that the videos automatically play in the newsfeed and provide analytics on views. Remember, Facebook boosts video posts over all other content in some followers’ feeds.

The platform’s ever-changing algorithms tailor users’ feeds based on the type of content they regularly consume—photos, videos and text posts. If you’re only posting one type of content, you may be missing a major sector of your audience. Follow your competitors and monitor what they’re doing on social media. See what posts resonate with their audience and learn from them.

Remember, most people are on social media for entertainment, so it’s OK to have fun. Build up a following organically. Buying page likes is not a recommended strategy, but experimenting with paid posts can be effective.

5. Engage with Your Audience

Engagement is the gold standard for social media success, or, as Grano says, “You can have thousands of followers but if only a few folks really engage, then you’re not being effective.”

Social media is an extension of a business’ digital storefront, so it’s vital that someone is interacting with your customers. This is the time-consuming part of social media, but by ignoring online users, it’s like having a business phone that no one answers.

When a user asks a question, respond quickly and constructively. If they comment on a post, “like” their replies. Reward good behavior and favorable reviews by thanking customers. Feature their posts prominently on your page.

If someone complains about your business, respond quickly and don’t let negativity spiral out of control.

Apologize for a bad experience and offer to fix what’s wrong. Other customers will see those replies and realize that the business is trying hard to do what’s right.

“Small businesses should challenge themselves to respond to comments within 24 hours,” Langdon says. “Larger organizations typically measure response time in minutes.”

6. Build Brand Awareness

Social media offers a platform to directly connect with customers, but don’t just hawk your products there. Be genuine and interesting to catch the eye of existing and potential followers.

Think of creative ways to engage with people, through asking questions, offering contests and broadcasting live video. Setting up robust social media channels will build your business’ digital presence and provide more avenues for people to find your company online.

Consider posting job openings to help recruit talent.

Be patient. It may take a while to see results, but monitoring interactions online offers a strategic opportunity to learn more about followers and turn them into brand advocates.

7.  Dog the Analytics

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram provide detailed analytics and insights on page administrators’ dashboards. Monitor those numbers to determine which posts work and which don’t. Be reasonable in your expectations when starting out. Remember, it takes a long time to build a following, says Grano.

Experiment with different content and posting times to see what your audience likes and when you can best reach them online. If it’s an important post or event, send out multiple posts at different times and in different forms to ensure that the information is seen by a majority of followers.

“Don’t be afraid of failure. Trust your audience to let you know (through likes, shares and comments), what connects,” Krueger says. “Then rinse and repeat.”

Posts that Worked

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Tervis

Facebook fans: 666,000 

Instagram followers: 36,500

Most viral post: An April video celebrating the launch of Tervis’ new stainless collection had more than 108,000 views. The video showed people using stainless products on the area’s beautiful beaches. “A lot of the stainless on the market looks a little sterile, kind of cold, it’s not very colorful,” Amanda Eyer, senior director of marketing, says. “It was the quality of the video that showed it being made. The Florida lifestyle is really big here.”

Instagrampost lkik3s

Hooked on SUP

Facebook followers: 8,000

Most viral post: Social media helped people find Paige Bakhaus’ off-the-beaten path paddleboard rental business in Englewood. She posted regularly on social media when she first got started and listed her business on every free listing site she could find. Hooked on SUP had a presence on Yelp and Trip Advisor, as well. “Without social media, I don’t think there would be a business,” she says. A video of playful manatees on a tour in October attracted a lot of attention on Facebook last fall, with more than 1,300 views.

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Nate’s Honor Animal Rescue

Facebook fans: 25,000

Most viral post: Shelter director Dari Oglesby snapped an iPhone photo last April of Lexi, a black Labrador mix, who had been returned to the shelter after a recent adoption. The photo showed her sitting outside in the rain in her kennel, waiting for her new owner to return. The post asked people not to judge, because Lexi’s adopter was heartbroken, too. The photo had more than 1,000 reactions, 1,500 shares and 300 comments. It was quickly followed by happy news of the dog’s adoption and a picture of her with her new family. “The next post read, ‘There are a lot of mended broken hearts tonight. Lexi has left the shelter,’” social media manager Cheryl Eason says.

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Sarasota Police Department

Twitter followers: 26,000 

Facebook likes: 23,000 

Instagram followers: close to 10,000

Most viral post: SPD motorcycle officers were contacted by a teenager who was visiting from Missouri, requesting to go on a ride-along with them on New Year’s Eve. While department policies would not allow a ride-along, officers found out that the 16-year-old boy had recently lost his father, who was a motorcycle officer from another city. A family member drove the boy down to the police station as motorcycle officers circled the teen’s car with lights flashing. The officers got off their bikes, shook hands with the boy and gave the surprised teen a commemorative SPD coin to pay tribute to his father on what would have been his birthday.

Genevieve Judge, the department’s communications coordinator, shot and edited video of the tribute and it took off, with more than 185,000 views on Facebook. The post was shared more than 1,800 times and was picked up by media outlets all over the world. “That was absolutely a tear jerker. Outstanding job to honor his father,” one Facebook commenter wrote. “I get chills just even talking about it,” Judge says. “Our officers wanted this young man, whom they had never met, to know that in law enforcement we’re all family.”

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