Social media can be an essential component to the success of a business.
Just ask Amy Veltman, whose family owns It's My Party, a balloon décor and supply store in Dyer.
“It is very helpful on many levels,” she said. “It keeps our current customers connected, and it attracts new customers.”
To someone unfamiliar with the world of social media, however, navigating through the many sites can be overwhelming and even counterproductive.
"Take baby steps," said Ruth Keefover, a Hobart resident and social media consultant. "Don't feel pressured to join all channels at once. Choose one that works best for your business and start there. Once you're comfortable, then expand to another social media channel."
So how can you get the most out of social media as a business owner? Here are some tips from local experts on how social media can help your business thrive.
Know the sites
While you may have a personal Facebook or Pinterest page, what site you should use as a business owner may be completely different.
"The first thing a business person should do when they decide to participate in social media is to research and decide which platforms work best for them, based upon their targeted audience," Keefover said.
For example, a woman's retail shop may want to consider Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest, while a restaurant may consider joining Twitter, Instagram and Foursquare, she said.
Many local businesses overlook Foursquare, which is similar to checking in on Facebook when someone arrives at a location.
"Customers check-in on Foursquare, leave a comment, a tip and can even post it to their Facebook and Twitter pages to let their friends know what they are up to," Keefover said. "Businesses can leverage this by replying and thanking them for their business or to ask for feedback about their experience."
While Instagram has only been around for a short time compared to other social media sites, it currently has more users than Twitter.
"Instagram is a great photo sharing channel and it provides the opportunity to add fun filters to the images," Keefover said.
Interested in posting videos? Try Instagram, Vine and YouTube.
Pinterest, which Keefover says is widely popular with women, is a great tool to organize and share with others on topics you're passionate about.
"For example, a coffee shop can showcase their drinks, inspirational coffee sayings or even share drink recipes with their customers," she said.
Recognize the value
Social media is one of the most misunderstood business marketing strategies, said Allyn Hane, vice president of digital strategy for Launch Digital Marketing and Crown Point resident.
Hane said one of the most overlooked reasons for using social media is for the SEO value it provides a company's website.
"For the first time in the history of the Internet, everyone you see has the ability to create hundreds if not thousands of natural links or citations back to your business's website content," he said. "They do this by sharing, plussing, liking, tweeting, pinning, checking into your stuff."
These interactions, he said, can be thought of as votes - demonstrating a business's content is of value because it's worth sharing across social networks.
"Search engines like Google will begin to show that content higher up in search results for relevant search terms," he said.
For Veltman, it's meant gaining new customers.
“I can't tell you how many times a person has come into our store and said either 'I found you on Facebook' or 'I watch all your videos,'” she said. “Both are free, and require a minimal amount of time.”
Calculate your posts
So how do you get more people involved so your business can hop into cyberspace and soar?
Keefover says there are a few simple steps to take when trying to gain presence in the social media world.
"Monitor social media conversations that are happening around you, what others in your industry or competitors are doing, and what your customers are saying," she said.
Based on what's being said, engage users by posting content that your audience will want to read and care about.
"Remember, when you post content, be sure to include a link, photo, video or even ask a question - something to give your audience a reason to act and respond," she said. "Business owners should be active in retweeting, reposting or engaging with others. They can't expect someone to engage with them if they're not willing to do the same thing."
Veltman says she engages her customers by holding contests, offering coupons and posting photos of staff members and the store's décor.
“Our customers enjoy our staff members and once we establish a personal connection, the bond will continue through social media,” she said.
After posting content, measure. Take a look back at what you've posted and see which posts have generated the most engagement and which ones haven't.
"This is a great way to find out what works and what doesn't and then you can tweak your messaging or posts from there," Keefover said.
Other ways to engage include holding contests and sharing informative tips about your field that would be of interest to your customers.
Knowing little tricks also helps. Keefover said based on market research, the best time to post for Facebook is from 1 to 4 p.m., for Twitter is 1 to 3 p.m., and for Pinterest is 2 to 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Remember the rule of thirds as well - one third of your posts should be about your business, one third replying and engaging with others, and one third reposting or sharing what others are saying, she said.
If business owners are busy, several social media sites allow users to create a content calendar in which someone can create several posts at one time but designate a day and time when they actually go live for people to see. Hootsuite.com also allows someone to manage all of her social media sites from one location.
Don't forget to vary your content per site as well, Keefover said.
"Every social media channel has a different audience, so don't post the same exact content to Facebook and Twitter," she said.