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Your competitors are online, so you have to be too. But you need a social media game plan. We show you how to start crafting one.

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These days, social media is a have-to not a want-to. Your competitors are online, so you have to be too — it’s not a game you can afford to forfeit.

But going on the field without a game plan isn’t good either.

Thankfully, the clock isn’t a factor. Social media isn’t going anywhere, so there’s plenty of time to apply a strategy to how you build your presence on some of the most-used sites on the Web.

Marketing pros say the key to developing a strategy is knowing the endgame. Having goals in mind for each platform you’re using allows you to plan your posts, analyze results, and make adjustments as needed.

So whether you’re building brand awareness or managing your reputation, keep your clipboard handy. When it comes down to it, social media is about blocking and tackling.

Offensive Line

Goal: Build Brand Awareness

Having the right social media presence shows that you came to play. “If your customers aren’t using Twitter, you don’t need to be there,” says Katy Tomasulo, social media manager at C Squared Advertising.

Operating in the channels that align with the clientele lets business owners spread the field and hit their targets. Once there, build awareness by positioning the company as a resource. “Even if you’re just posting a general story about the housing market, you’re still keeping your brand in front of people,” Tomasulo says.

Goal: Boost Traffic & Leads

To boost website traffic, focus on content and link creation, says Carol Morgan, managing partner at marketing firm mRelevance. “This requires a lot more content than if you just want to have conversations — but if you want to have conversations, you still want a lot of good content so people will want to interact with you.”

Think ground-and-pound offense. Every play (or post, or pin, or tweet) should churn out quality content to move clients toward the goal line: your website.

McClurg Remodeling & Construction, in Marcellus, N.Y., had 161 Internet-based leads in 2011. “For 2012, we’re at 187, which is up 17%, and makes up 11% of our total leads,” says owner Scott McClurg. With 2,600 blog followers, and pages on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and YouTube, the company’s online leads grow every year. “Companies that don’t take social media seriously are going to fall behind,” he says.

Playing Defense

Goal: Manage Your Reputation

Are your social media followers just fair-weather fans? Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, and other platforms let customers be cheerleaders for your business, but they also let them complain — loudly.

“Negative comments can be posted a lot faster online than other ways people communicate,” says McClurg Remodeling & Construction vice president Brian Ciota.

No one knows that better than Chris Dietz, owner of Dietz Development, in Falls Church, Va., who went to court about a client who defamed him and his company on two online forums. “I can’t even begin to fathom how much damage her statements have caused,” says Dietz, whose client accused him of trespassing and theft.

Dietz felt that a lawsuit was the only way to try to get the social media sites to remove the defamatory postings. More often, online reputation management simply means stepping up your customer service game. “You really just have to respond in a sensible way and be honest about it,” says Chris Marentis, CEO of Surefire Social.

Of course, the best defense is a good offense. “People are becoming links in the social world,” Marentis says. “Search engines now actually trust people more, and everywhere you go on the Web, they’re asking you to create a profile. To boost your online reputation, you have to provide homeowners with a means of giving you a positive review on Yelp or your Google Places page. Search functions will find those profiles and learn to trust the people attached to them.”

Tailgate Party

Goal: Bond With Your Audience

Sometimes, taking social media off the field and using it for friendly interactions with customers and colleagues lightens the mood and lets a company’s real personality shine. The trick here is to not get too chummy. Are you the buddy or are you the coach?

“Studies on social media used to say, ‘talk about other people more than yourself,’” Morgan says. “Now what they’re saying is that if you’re just talking about others, people won’t know who you are.”

Morgan suggests striving for a blend of personality and business. “If you provide a ton of information unrelated to what you do, people might forget what you do,” he says. “Don’t create a disconnect or brand confusion. Relate your topics back to your business. For instance, if you’re talking about a great new local coffee shop, mention that you found it because it’s close to some jobs you’re working on.”

Business strategist Dan Waldschmidt also advises that the tailgate atmosphere on social media should be genuine, not forced; friendly, not manipulative.

“If you’re funny and witty and charming in person, then be that online,” he says. “Be who you are, just don’t be a jerk. The unspoken part of strategy is to have honest discussions. If you’re happy making cabinets, then talk about it, have fun. Don’t concoct some personality that you think you have to have online so people will like what you do.”

Game Tapes

Goal: Evaluate Your Plays

On a monthly basis, be the Monday-morning quarterback. Regularly evaluating social media marketing lets users call the option if things aren’t going to plan. “With the Internet, you can see what works faster than ever,” Morgan says, “and especially if things aren’t working, you can figure out what you should be doing differently.”

Knowing which metrics to follow is important. Recently, social media expert and Harvard Business Review blogger Ivory Madison reviewed the book The Lean Startup and what author Eric Ries calls “vanity metrics” — those social media metrics that seem important, but really aren’t.

“Before you tell your CEO you have a million Twitter followers, ask yourself, ‘so what?’” Madison writes. “A better metric is how many products you sell as a result of tweeting a link to your purchase path.”

At Inbound Marketing Associates, which handles McClurg Remodeling & Construction’s social media efforts, associate Mary Karpinski saw a McClurg blog post go viral with more than 56,000 page views. “We found that many of those page views were outside our service area,” Karpinski says. In that case, the company was seeing engagement, but it needed to redefine which page views were valuable.

“Seek out what Ries calls ‘actionable metrics,’” Madison says. “Measure numbers that demonstrate cause and effect, giving you a good idea of what to do next.”

Play the Schedule

There are no byes in social media. To help manage a posting schedule, try setting aside a day or two a week as “Photo Friday” or “Tuesday Tips,” for example, and plot out items you’ll post well in advance.

Don’t go crazy, though. “Creating a rough calendar with anchor days gives you something solid to stand on, and they’re great for creating followings,” says Tomasulo. “But you have to have flexibility for times when you want to post something outside your themed days.”

Salary Caps

Social media may seem like free marketing, but more than ever it’s pay-to-play. “Expect to spend money on Facebook ads,” says mRelevance’s Morgan. She also notes that graphics and landing pages for social media campaigns will cost money.

These services might be built-in for companies that work with marketing firms, or you may have to pay extra. Also, “tweet-ups” and other social media–promoted events will cost money to host. About 1% of sales is an average social media budget.

Marentis suggests working efficiently to maximize social media marketing. “There’s a strategy to stacking a page [post] and a ‘like’ story,” he says. “If you do it consistently, you can target people in your circles, and engagement levels go through the roof.”

—Lauren Hunter, senior editor, REMODELING.