Ruth Bastedo is Director, Business Development at Social Media Group. Follow @rutbas

Last week, I was up in the Muskoka region, which around these parts is affectionately known as “cottage country”, talking to a sold out group of women business owners in the region. The event was organized by the Mukoka YWCA’s Women in Business program, and the topic was “Strategies for Success”- based on an article I did last March for the Globe and Mail on women entrepreneurs, “Ten Strategies for Achieving Success as an Entrepreneur“.

It was a fabulous evening, and it was great to get to know the group of 60+ women business owners, all of whom were keenly looking for ways to build and market their businesses in a smaller community.

The talk was not on social media. It wasn’t really about marketing. It was about how business owners set goals for success and put together the support structure required to reach them- but “dealing with social media” turned out to be a hot topic. I am always struck in these types of situations by the love/hate relationship that small business owners have with digital marketing in general, and social media as a sub-section of that.

Digital marketing is a necessity for all small businesses. Period. You ignore it at your peril. But many, many business owners (and I would put myself in that bucket, in my time as a business owner) have a huge challenge finding the time, resources, workflow and strategy to make it truly effective. Let’s face it, it can be a grind. That’s the hell part. And then all you feel is guilt for ignoring what you know can be an incredibly powerful, game changing exercise.

BUT, it doesn’t have to be this way. Really. It can be heavenly.

It took me a long time to find my groove in the social media space, and I’ve been in digital communications for 15 years. This is hard stuff to get your head around, but if you tweak your approach, and find that magic combination of channels, content, tools and workflow. It can be very easy to execute, and incorporate into a daily routine. Once I hit that right combination, I started seeing results immediately. My social media world is aligned, and for now, does what I need it to do.

Looking at this task from an non-marketer’s perspective, here are 5 tips that I think would be of huge benefit to any small business owner, looking to get a handle on “this social media thing”, with a minimum amount of pain.

1. Access “Social Media 101” content. There’s a ton of it around. One recent post that I thought was a good solid, up to date overview of the major channels is “Social Media 101: Getting Started on the Top Social Networks”. Pick one or two as a starting point for your company. It’s likely going to be Twitter and Faceboook, for consumer oriented companies, and Twitter and LinkedIn for business oriented companies.

2. Determine your marketing objectives. Do you want sales leads? Brand awareness? Do you want to reach out to your customers, and get them to refer other customers to you? Is your marketing effort local, regional or national? It could even be international. Be clear on what you’d like to get out of this time you invest in social media. How can social media integrate or support what you are already doing on the marketing front. Look at models out there that reflect your objectives.

3. Be clear about your target audience. Who are these people? What information is going to be most relevant to them? How are they going to use and engage in social media? In order to engage with your audience in a meaningful way, try making a list of all the ways your content can add value to their lives. This list should guide you in developing value add content.

4. Develop what we call a “content strategy”. This is developing a mechanism to create, curate, source or simply pass on content that is going to be relevant to your clients and customers. People are more likely to “follow” you if you are providing thoughtful content that is going to add value to them. You have to figure out where to find this content, and how often you are going to “share” it with them. Quite often, we develop “editorial” or “conversation” calendars ahead of time, so you know what themes you are going to focus on every week. Download the Social Media Group White Paper on Content Marketing for a good introduction.

5. Find a tool that works for you. There are lots out there, but a good tool makes all the difference in the world. A couple of months ago, I started using a tool from a local company called Get Elevate, which makes it easy to find content, curate it, and send it out via Twitter. There are some good lists out there- here’s the type of thing you should be looking for: 50 Mostly Free Social Media Tools You Can’t Live Without in 2012. Find something that you find intuitive, and easy for you and your staff to use, and that lines up to your marketing objectives.

As a small business, keep your scope small and focused, and before diving in, be clear on what you want to achieve with your social media investment. Test as you go… at least for the first little while. Get help if you have to, professional or otherwise- but social media can be a very valuable part of any marketing plan, but you have to at some point, just start somewhere.

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