With billions of people across the globe on platforms from Yelp to Twitter every day, it’s difficult for a startup to exist without a stable social media presence. However, getting into the social networking world takes more poise and strategy than you may think, and it’s easy to get it wrong. Three University of Utah student entrepreneurs who developed their companies at the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute – Makayla Hendricks, Josh Webber and Jaron Hall – shared their insider knowledge on how and when to use social media for branding and promoting your startup.
1. You Need a Social Media Plan
When a startup idea hits you, you’re going to be very excited. You’re going to want to get to work right now, but throwing together a Twitter account for your developing company is one of the worst things you can do. It’s important to develop a plan for social media that looks similar to your business plan, one that mimics the intended growth of your company and audience.
“If I could go back in time, and give advice to myself, oh what I would give. But in regards to social media, it’s hard to go backward,” said Webber, CEO of The Society. “Because it’s so easy, it’s also so dangerous to go out there and start posting content.”
Hendricks, owner of Off the Frame Photography, felt the same way. “Before you start social media, spend a couple days (or months) really nailing down your brand,” she said. “It really depends on how big you want to end up. If you’re planning on becoming a multi-billion-dollar company, it’s a lot more important to have a stable brand on social media than if you’re a local organization.”
Even though you’re going to be dedicating some time figuring out what to post, it’s never too early to make the various social media accounts – on all platforms.
“If you’re starting a company, it’s wise to snag all of the usernames before some troll does it,” said Hall, CEO of Utah Maids. “Even if you don’t intend on using it, it’s important to do. As soon as you come up with a name that you can confirm will be that company’s name, it can’t hurt to go and register accounts, just so you have them. If you don’t, then when you’re a few months in, if you have any kind of success, anyone can take twitter.com/yourbusinessname and then you’re kind of screwed.”
2. Be Selective
While your startup may benefit from a strong social media presence, having an active Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Google Plus, Pinterest, Tumblr and MySpace will actually be a detriment to your brand. Instead of overwhelming yourself on your first go, apply your target market to social media.
“My target market is high school seniors, and that’s what I put most of my business’ energy into,” Hendricks said.
After you identify your target market, choose the social media platform that matches your startup’s product or service. The importance of social media to your startup depends entirely on your target market and the type of service or goods your company produces.
Hendricks runs a photography business that caters to teenagers. “Instagram is critical for me,” she said. “I’m a visual company – I’m a photography business – so Instagram makes more sense for my content.”
Don’t waste your time: “I’m positive that no business spends an equal amount of time on every platform – find the one that gives you the best results,” Hall said.
Each platform has its own strengths and weaknesses for every kind of startup. Webber laid them out: “There’s obviously the big three: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. They each have their differences. Instagram is a more artistic platform. You go there for the aesthetics, if you want your brand to look good. Facebook is a great way to network with the people that are following you – events, sharing announcements, messaging, customer service, getting reviews – and then Twitter for the more in the moment, relevant, here’s what’s happening content.”
3. Know How to Manipulate Facebook
The most popular first social media for startups seems to be Facebook, which is now synced with Instagram posting. Facebook offers the ability to upload your email lists for more targeted advertising, allow people to sign up for events, like your page and link with Instagram posts and stories.
Webber said it’s definitely his favorite social media for his startup. “Facebook is getting to the point where it can replace most websites with what it can do,” he said. “The events, the reviews, the messaging, and it’s free? You can’t beat that.”
However, there’s some downfalls that you’ll have to learn to maneuver. “Facebook will only show your content to about 10 percent of your followers, and the only way to overcome that is to engage your followers,” Hendricks said. “As they start liking your posts more often, you’ll come up more often in their personal feeds. What we’ve been doing recently is following a bunch of pages that we assume that our customers would be interested in, and then share those pages’ content onto our page. That gets a ton of people engaged on our page, and when they like those posts, they’re more likely to see our original content.”
4. Don’t Make a Snapchat Unless it Really, Really Makes Sense
Snapchat is a booming medium with nearly 160 million daily users. Even though it may appear to be a hotspot for your business, in reality, it’s probably not worth the effort. It’s a personal, secondary platform.
“I have experience with all of the social media platforms – I’ve used Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Google Plus (even though I found it to be useless),” Hall said. “The only thing I haven’t used for business purposes is Snapchat. It’s difficult to get a following, unlike Facebook and Twitter where anyone can see it. It’s a more private, invitation-based platform. It’s tough to find a list of people who have Snapchat accounts.”
Hendricks was on Hall’s side: “I don’t think Snapchat was ever made for business. Instagram has the stories function now, which is all Snapchat could provide.”
However, The Society is planning on tapping into the “personal” side of Snapchat, using their customers. “Especially now with the tools its implementing, you know, with the GPS, filters, the fact that you can create your own company filters, we’re thinking about doing Snapchat takeovers, where someone gets to put up their own story,” Webber said. “It would give a more intimate feel of what it’s like to be a Society member. I think that gives a more in depth view, because people appreciate honesty, they appreciate when you’re authentic and I think Snapchat can offer that to them.”
Still, unless you’re running a startup with a membership focus, it might be better to stick other platforms.
5. Be Consistent
Your social media accounts are one of your first chances to prove your startup. Once you’ve decided which platform(s) are the most productive for your business, commit to a consistent social media presence.
“The very beginning of the sales funnel, before anyone is even considered a ‘lead,’ is social media,” Webber said. “You’ll come across a person on social media before anything else – before the website, before you talk to them in person, you’re going to see how they look on Facebook.”
You want those who choose to follow, friend or like your startup’s page to value the content. But more than anything else, what you post needs to make sense and have its own feel. Communicating your product or service is the point of your social media page.
“I feel like a lot of startups post just to post,” Hendricks said. “They just post something to get their content out there. You have to have a plan – you can’t just randomly stab at it. I see lots of startups posting miscommunicated pictures, with none of them having to do anything with each other, or they’re only posting once a week.”
Webber had similar advice: “I would sit down and ask yourself, ‘Who is this directed towards? What problem is it solving? What are you asking your customers to do?’ And if you can’t answer all three of those questions clearly, then you shouldn’t be posting.”
Your messaging should be consistent, but also the person posting it. “I was working with a different company, and you could tell when they switched who was running the social media because it looked very different,” Hendricks said. “You have to be very methodical. You can have good content, but it can look messy and all over the place: you need to focus your content. Twenty percent of your social media should be promoting your product, and 80 percent should be interesting, related content, all along the same vein.”
6. A Random Person Can’t Run Your Twitter
You (and your possible partners) know your business. You know the motivation behind it, you know how much time and effort it took to get to where you are now. You need that passion to show through social media, and only you or someone very close to your startup can do that. After all the time you’ve spent growing your startup, you may feel the need to hand over the social media responsibility, but be careful who you hand the reigns to.
“When it comes to daily posting, you need someone who is really committed to your brand, who is just as passionate and understands your vision,” Hendricks said. “Social media takes a lot of time. A lot of people think they can do social media marketing because they use Instagram every day, but they don’t understand the strategy. Don’t just hire a random person off the street who says they can tweet for you.”
Hendricks also advises against hiring social media firms for the same reason: they can’t dedicate the amount of time to you and your startup that you need. And, they’ll cost a lot of money that you can’t expense.
Not only does social media take time and commitment, but it might need your name, too.
“On Instagram, I personally spent hours doing influencer outreach,” Webber said. “I was messaging as many influential Instagrammers as I could, and leveraging what I had, which at the time was The Society nightlife card. I didn’t have a lot of capital, I couldn’t pay them to post about us, but I could offer them the card, and that’s how I would make it through the first few weeks. It comes back to, if you are passionate about your brand, my philosophy is people are attracted to passion. We can all relate to someone who’s passionate about something, no matter what that thing is.”
7. You Can Rebrand
Over the process of your team switching out, your business growing and your consumer base fluctuating, the above-mentioned tips and tricks may be moot. You might have to start from the beginning again, but you can survive it if you’re proactive.
“I’ve rebranded myself multiple times, which you can do, especially so early into your business,” Hendricks said. “I’ve seen startups go through a couple rebranding periods and still be fine.”
Those hours you put into your business so far aren’t going to waste though. It’s about learning how to pivot not only your business idea, but your marketing, too.
“If you start getting into it and you realize that what you have isn’t working for you, it’s okay,” Hendricks said. “That also comes a lot when you talk to entrepreneurs about pivoting their businesses. You may start out with your target market as 30-somethings with kids, and after a year you realize that your business is more for first-year college students, and it’s okay to pivot. Your marketing is going to be a lot different and your social media branding is going to change a lot to fit that.”
Once you recognize that you need to change – do it. Update your logo, focus on a different media platform, but stay consistent.
8. There are Other Ways to Market Your Business
Social media is exciting and easy to use. It’s attractive, how cheap it is to reach so many people. But, you have to remember – that might not be where your customers are.
“There are plenty of businesses out there that create social media accounts for their business, but they’re complete garbage, really. I would even consider mine under that category,” Hall said. “I have it just to have it, but I don’t really use it. People will spend lots of time on social media trying to produce content for it, but nobody will ever see it.”
In short: trying to break into the world of social media marketing may be a waste of time and resources. Instead of running a Twitter account, Hall uses flyers, his website, Yelp and Facebook ads to get the word out about his company. For Utah Maids, social media isn’t a priority, and that’s okay.
“It’s important to know that you should always assess all marketing options,” Hall said. “Don’t just spend a lot of time on social media just because it exists, or just because other companies are doing it, make sure that social media is a good fit for your business.”
Social media can have a big impact on your business – whether it’s positive or negative is up to you. Before jumping in, you should make sure that social media is the right marketing option for startup. If you identified a need for a social media presence, you should already have a business and social media plan that complement each other before your first Tweet, and maintain a consistent, on-brand account. Successful social media requires a lot of trial and error, effort, energy and passion, but if you really care about your brand, you can make it work.