Social media. By now, surely, we all know how it works. Small variations exist between every medium, but ultimately, the goal is the same: personal online communities are brought together by sharing information, ideas, opinions, and pictures, to cultivate relationships.

Of course, the power of social media has a tendency to distract. According to Statista, an online global statistics portal, an average of 135 minutes per day are spent on the likes of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, amongst some 2 billion active users.

Now, from the lens of a small business owner, that should sound like the perfect vehicle for some cost effective advertising, right? And given the opportunity to reach that many potential clients daily, building brand awareness should be a slice, right?

Unfortunately, it might not be quite that easy…

With the amount of time that the average user spends connected to some form of social media outlet, you have to assume that they’ve seen it all, and that they can distinguish the difference between a quick advertising gimmick and a whole-heartedly invested, passionate message from a small business owner looking to engage and promote.

In short, the online community has little tolerance for self-promoters who view social media as a means for free advertising, and it can be challenging to strike a balance tactfully. The credibility of your business depends heavily on how you frame your online presence; one misstep can be damning.

Don’t panic. There’s good news: many have failed in their attempts to access the virtual marketplace of consumers, and you can tap into their mistakes to keep you on the path of social media advertising success!

Here are a few tips:

Share valuable content: Share posts from the community. Identify strong social influencers, bloggers that your customers read, and individuals with a robust following. Share their content, comment thoughtfully and without self-promotion, and it will generate conversation.

Ask questions: Engage your audience. It will lend valuable insight from prospective clients and current customers.

Share your expertise: Offer fun facts and little-known trivia that will likely be shared and reposted; it’s a great opportunity to grow your list of followers.

Provide value: While it’s important to offer up some personality, and let your audience gain some insight into who you are as a business, it’s equally important to create meaningful posts that will benefit potential clients. Think, tips on best practices, offering special promotions and details on upcoming events.

Create a pinterest board: The ability for others to “repin” things they find particularly useful or inspiring will serve as social amplification for your brand.

Avoid syndicated messages at the risk of sounding generic: You don’t want the sincerity of the message to get lost by sweeping generalizations. Odds are, if someone is following you on one social media platform, they’re checking you out on others as well. It’s OK to use similar language, but deliver the message accordingly to reflect the tone of the network. (Surely, your hashtag jargon differs from your Facebook updates?)

Before you jump aboard the social media bandwagon, especially during the early stages of developing your business, it would be wise to invest your time collecting some information on your typical customer. If the data suggests that your average client is a 30-something mother who likes Facebook, then why waste time and energy on Twitter (at least initially)?

Once you’re finally ready to build your business presence online, start slow.

Be wary of being too eager with your posts unless you know you have the time to invest to maintain that momentum. Don’t set a rhythm you cannot uphold. You can always ramp up the volume later, but it’s hard to back off without appearing ungraceful and amateur.

If you’re afraid you won’t be able to keep up, there are resources available at the drop of a hat, or in this case, the click of a mouse. You don’t have to be a one-man band.

Consider reply-based advertising; companies like Respondology and LeadSift maintain an online presence for you while you focus on other important elements of running your business.

Here’s how it works:

Step One.
Someone posts a want or a need (for example, “I want to learn how to make cheese.”).

Step Two.
An advertiser responds with a message matching the need (a recipe for making cheese, courtesy of your new cookbook).

Step Three.
A sale is made or a branding moment is experienced.

It’s obvious that social media can be a very powerful form of advertising for your brand, but it’s important not to diminish what it can offer you, the small business owner, as well. It grants you access to a plethora of information. It can act as a portal into the minds of your target consumers. It allows you the opportunity to really listen to relevant conversations that you can then use to grow your business in a meaningful way.

Sure, for many social media is just a welcomed distraction from daily responsibilities, a vehicle for 135 minutes of wasted time per day for the average active user. But for you, the small business owner looking to tap into an invaluable resource readily available at your fingertips, social media is a tool.

Just remember, it will only work for you if you use it strategically.