The average billboard in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, costs about $2,000 a month. If you purchase one and all 100,000 people in the city see it in a month, the space would have cost you 2¢ per impression, which isn’t bad. Now, imagine you publish a post to the world’s largest social media platform, Facebook, and all 2.96 billion users see your post. All those impressions would cost even less because organic Facebook posts are free.
Of course, neither of these scenarios is particularly realistic—not everybody in Tuscaloosa will see a billboard, and not everybody on Facebook will see a post. Still, the comparison gives you a sense of the power and scale of social media marketing. Done strategically, a social media post can reach more people for less than most other marketing tactics. Here’s what social media marketing entails, and how you can get started with it.
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What is social media marketing?
Social media marketing is the process of using social media platforms to promote your products or services, increase brand awareness, engage with audiences, and drive website traffic. It involves publishing high-quality content to your social media accounts, running social media advertisements, responding to comments and messages, and tracking and analyzing social media metrics. The most common platforms for social media marketing include Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, and TikTok.
Pillars of social media marketing
There are five core elements to social media marketing:
- Strategy. Your social media marketing strategy will include your goals, target audiences, key platforms, and social-specific content strategy. Essentially, it dictates why, where, and what your company will post, as well as what metrics you’ll track.
- Publishing. Publishing is how you actually create your social content and get it in front of audiences. You’ll decide how frequently to post, when to post, and what publishing and scheduling tools you’ll need to support your process.
- Community management. Social media marketing allows you to engage directly with audiences. You can like or respond to comments on your posts, monitor social media websites for mentions of your company, and receive and reply to direct messages from social media users.
- Advertising. All social media posts can be classified as either paid or organic content. Organic content is free to post, and the extent of its reach depends on your follower counts and the specifics of the platform’s algorithm. Paid content (or social media advertising) allows businesses to pay platforms to promote the posts to more people and provide the ability to target specific audiences.
- Analytics. Social media analytics refers to the set of practices you use to monitor the effectiveness of social media campaigns. It involves tracking, looking at, and analyzing metrics including your account or post’s reach, views, engagements, clicks, and mentions.
Pros and cons of social media marketing for small businesses
Social media marketing is popular with all types of businesses—over 96% of small businesses and 97% of Fortune 500 companies use social media channels as part of their marketing strategies. Here’s an overview of the benefits and a few relevant drawbacks for small ecommerce businesses:
Benefits of social media marketing
- Increased sales. An effective social media marketing campaign can generate leads, increase brand recognition, and drive traffic to your website—all of which can increase sales.
- Strong return on investment (ROI). Organic social media marketing can be cost effective since it costs almost nothing to post on a social media platform—particularly compared to the relatively high expense and low reach of traditional marketing channels like billboards and print ads.
- Improved customer relationships. Businesses can use social networks to interact directly with current and potential customers, addressing their concerns or answering any questions immediately. Positive interactions can improve customer relationships and lift brand perception.
Drawbacks of social media marketing
- Can be time consuming. Developing a strong social media presence across multiple platforms takes time. For example, depending on your goals, you might need to create and publish more than 20 posts a week on each of your key social platforms and devote another two hours a day to community management activities.
- Requires diverse and specialized skills. The ideal social media manager is an expert (or at least competent) in graphic design, photography, videography, content writing, and customer service. They are also well versed in platform-specific best practices and in touch with social media trends. It can be challenging for small businesses to meet all of these expectations internally, and outsourcing to freelancers or social media marketing agencies can get expensive.
- Won’t reach all audience segments. Social media marketing only reaches social media users. If your audience is elsewhere, select a different marketing tactic.
How to develop a successful social media marketing strategy
Effective content marketing starts with a plan. Here’s how to develop your social media marketing strategy in six steps:
- Set your budget and goals
- Identify your target audience
- Research competitors
- Select social media sites
- Define your social media brand
- Develop a content strategy
1. Set your budget and goals
Creating a social media marketing plan should start with reviewing your digital marketing budget. Decide how much time and money you can allocate to social media marketing and what goals you expect to hit. There may be costs associated with promoting social posts, hiring an agency or freelancer, or having an employee handle your social media campaigns internally. Set social media targets that support your broader business objectives but are also attainable given your budget.
For example, if one of your business goals is to generate 10% more leads in the upcoming calendar year, you might set a social media target of increasing traffic to gated landing pages by 25% over the same period (with the understanding that not everyone who visits your website will fill out a form to become a lead). If your budget is larger, you might bump your social media target to 35% to reflect the increase in marketing resources available for the campaign. If you aren’t seeing results from organic content, you might invest in paid LinkedIn posts, Facebook advertising, or influencer marketing strategies to reach your goal.
2. Identify your target audiences
Conduct audience research to determine the demographics of active users on each of the most popular social media platforms. Then, identify the target audience for your social media efforts. Knowing who you’re trying to target—as well as who is active on each platform—will help you identify which platforms your business should have a presence on. For example, if your target audience consists of men between 45 and 65, you might focus your social media marketing strategy on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, because these channels are the most popular with these audiences.
3. Research competitors
In some cases, you can speed up the audience research process by conducting a competitive analysis. For example, let’s say your target audience is eco-conscious, stay-at-home parents between 25 and 45 years old with some disposable income. You can identify successful competitors in the space by searching for similar brands online, surveying your customers, or evaluating social media mentions and follower counts. Then, see what social media platforms your competitors are on and whether they’re receiving likes and comments on those platforms. If you see a trend across several competitors on a specific platform, you can conclude that your target audiences are particularly active on that platform.
A competitive analysis can also help you identify successful content types, brand characteristics, and publishing cadences. Although you won’t want to mimic another company exactly, competitor research can help you identify tactics that work for businesses like yours. When it’s time to create content, you and your creative team can make assets that feel unique to your business but draw inspiration from the positive things you see competitors doing.
4. Select social media sites
To select platforms for your social media marketing strategy, start with the audience, ruling out any platforms that don’t serve the target audiences you’ve identified. Next, consider features, displays, and how specific content types perform on individual social media networks. For example, if you’re planning to sell products, consider a platform with in-app shopping features, such as Facebook or Instagram. If you plan to post links to blog posts or articles, consider a platform like Twitter or LinkedIn that can pull featured images from external links. Your social media marketing strategy may also involve a combination of different tactics for each individual social media platform.
5. Define your social media brand
While your social media content will reflect your main brand identity, you may decide to have slight variations in visuals, tone, and voice, depending on the social channel. For example, you might permit a lightly ironic tone on Twitter but keep your LinkedIn content buttoned up, given that the platform is predominately for business networking.
Once you’ve established a social media brand, create brand guidelines, making sure to note any platform-specific variations. These will help your social content look cohesive.
6. Develop a content strategy
Use your goals, target audience research, and competitive analysis to identify the key topics, post types, and publishing cadences, as well as what time of day to post on each social media platform. To create compelling content and keep your audience engaged, resist the urge to lean too heavily into promotional content. One common rule for an effective social media marketing strategy states that 80% of your content should entertain or inform, and 20% should directly promote your company.
For example, imagine that your main goal is to boost sales of your reusable water bottles. Your target audience is health- and eco-conscious, and your competitors see high engagement on wellness posts and video content. Your content strategy might include content about the negative environmental impacts of plastic water bottles, the health risks of disposable plastics, and positive wellness tips. This content might take the form of short videos, excerpts from long-form articles on your blog, and branded infographics.
Social media marketing metrics
Marketing teams use social media metrics to evaluate campaign results and identify successful tactics so they can adjust the strategy to optimize results. Here’s a list of metrics that provide valuable insights:
- Reach. The number of unique people who see a social media post.
- Impressions. The number of times a post is displayed to users.
- Engagements. The number of likes, comments, clicks, shares, or direct messages on an individual post or for an entire account.
- Engagement rate. The percentage of reached users who engage with a post out of all those who saw it. The formula to calculate this is: engagement rate = post engagement / post reach.
- Amplification rate. The percentage of followers, out of all your followers, who share a post. The formula for this is: amplification rate = post shares / total account followers.
- Click-through rate. The percentage of people, out of all the times the post was displayed, who click on a link in your post. The formula for this is: click-through rate = post link clicks / post impressions.
- Account views. The number of people who view your company’s social media profiles.
- Audience growth rate. A measure of how quickly your audience is growing, expressed in a percentage. The formula for this is: audience growth rate = (net new followers over a certain time period / total followers) x 100.
- Cost-per-click (CPC). A measure of cost effectiveness expressed by how much you pay for every click a post receives. The formula for this is: CPC = ad spend / number of clicks.
- Conversion rate. The percentage of people who take a desired action, like purchasing a product or filling out a contact form. The formula for this is: conversion rate = number of impressions / number of people who take a desired action.
- Return on investment (ROI). A measure of the profitability of a social media marketing campaign. The formula for this is: ROI = profits attributable to a campaign / total campaign cost.
- Mentions. The number of times users mention your company on a social platform.
- Share of social voice (SoSV). The frequency of your company mentions compared to your competitors, expressed in percentage form. The formula for this is: SoSV = (number of mentions of your brand / number of mentions of competitor brands) x 100.
- Social sentiment. The distribution of neutral, positive, and negative sentiments about your company. The formula for this is: social sentiment = (total number of positive mentions - total number of negative mentions) / total number of mentions.
Social media marketing FAQ
What do social media marketers do?
Social media marketers promote a company’s products or services on social media platforms. They might develop a social media strategy, monitor trends, create engaging content, schedule and publish posts, and track and analyze analytics.
What types of content perform best on social media?
Although specifics vary by platform, the following types of content tend to perform well on social channels:
- Short-form videos: TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram
- User-generated content: Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook
- Company culture content: Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter
- High-quality images: Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook
- Infographics: Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook
How can businesses measure the success of their social media marketing campaigns?
Businesses track social media metrics—like engagement, reach, click-through rate, and conversions—to measure the success of their social media marketing campaigns and calculate return on investment (ROI).
What are some common social media marketing mistakes to avoid?
Businesses just starting out sometimes make these common social media marketing mistakes:
- Choosing the wrong platforms for the target audience
- Not tracking social media metrics
- Not publishing often enough
- Over-indexing on promotional content
- Neglecting community management