A Publication of WTVP

Ask a dozen business owners who have added new customers or clients through social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn what they love most about it, and they will tell you the same thing that online marketing experts will. It’s hard to beat social media when it comes to cost-effectiveness. After all, social media runs on time, attention and creativity. You don’t need to put in any money to succeed, so the new customers you find are essentially “free.”

Except that they really aren’t.

What you give up to participate on social media sites is far more valuable—your time. I have yet to meet anyone who has more than 24 hours in a single day, and this economy is forcing most of us to squeeze enormous amounts of effort and productivity from each one. Who has time to throw away on something that isn’t working…or something that isn’t working as efficiently as it could be?

To make social media marketing a viable business strategy, you need to treat it just as you would any other marketing tool. That means not only figuring out the best ways to do it, but also determining what kind of return you are getting from your investment (whether it’s in time or money), and making smart decisions going forward.

With that in mind, here are four professional-grade tips to help you get the most out of your social networking efforts, and figure out exactly what kind of return on investment you’re getting:

Understand the key social media marketing metrics. One of the things that can make it difficult to figure out whether you’ve been successful on sites like Facebook and Twitter is that few people, even within the web design and online marketing industry, really agree on what that success looks like. In other words, you definitely want to see a bump in sales, but what happens before that? How can you measure your progress?

There are definitely certain things you can and should measure, like the number of fans you have on your company’s Facebook page, how many followers you have on Twitter, the number of visitors to your website coming from the sites, etc. Get in the habit of checking all of them, because they will eventually give you a leading indicator of future sales.

Trace every sale back to its beginning. It can be too easy, especially when you have a lot of different things going on, to simply figure out how many new orders are coming in (online or off) and not worry too much about where they’re coming from. Big mistake. If you aren’t sure how new customers are finding you, or what messages they are responding to, it’s going to be very difficult to improve upon your campaigns…much less decide which ones to continue or not.

For that reason, you simply must find out where new sales are coming from. The best source of this information, of course, is your customers themselves. If you can’t find out from them, however, it makes sense to employ some heavy-duty tracking tools. That’s because, even though someone might respond to a specific tweet or email of yours, their initial interest may have been piqued by something else. The last thing you want to do is cut off a profitable marketing avenue because you didn’t understand that it was helping you in the long run.

Use the proper tools to cut down the time needed for social networking. As I’ve mentioned, the one thing that small and medium-sized businesses usually put into social media marketing is time. Ironically, updating posts, content and profiles doesn’t usually have to take nearly as many minutes and hours as it does. For one thing, it’s far too easy to become distracted and devote much of your day to chatting with friends and looking up things that are fun or entertaining, rather than focusing on what’s important to your business. For another, moving around from site to site, or updating your content one piece at a time, is generally slow and inefficient.

There are any number of tools available online that can help you speed up the process of managing your social media profiles. At a certain point, it makes sense to question whether you are even the best person to be managing them in the first place. As with doing your own taxes or cleaning your own office, keeping up with the social networking campaign is definitely something you can do, but might be done a lot better, and more cost-effectively, if it’s delegated to a professional.

Remember that persistence is part of the process. The one thing you always have to remember about social media marketing is that, like anything worth doing in business, it’s going to take time. You either have to have a lot of patience yourself, or work with a team of professional online marketers who can help you measure the right metrics and show that you are still on track to meet your bottom-line goals. Either way, it’s not going to happen overnight, so focus on what you are trying to achieve, rather than what you would like to see happen in the short term.

Handled the right way, social media sites can help you open the door to thousands upon thousands of potential new customers. To reach that point, however, you need to treat them like you would any other business opportunity­—one that has to show the right return on investment on your time and money. Follow these tips and make the most out of the opportunity while keeping all your costs low. iBi