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A flourishing social media presence is an elusive beast: Some companies own it and have tons of followers and shares, and their customers ooogle over their every post. Other brands struggle to get fans and spin their wheels trying to get people to pay attention to them.

Caveat before we get too far: Certain brands are well-suited for a social media following. For example, if you’re a company like The New York Times, it’s easy to get some social media love – people enjoy the newsfeed posts, and it helps readers find trending stories. However, if you sell B2B products, such as silicon chip processors, it might be a bit harder to be a happening trender. Don’t get discouraged – there are other ways to market your brand.

So with that setup, let’s assume that you have a company that has some social media potential. How will you increase your social media presence, and really, how important is it that you do? Could a strong social media imprint be the best thing since sliced bread for your marketing strategy?

First things first: Know your customers

Before you go down the path of social media fiefdom dreams, you first need to take a step back and understand your key demographic, a.k.a. your customers and potential customers. Simply creating a Facebook or Pinterest page and posting blurbs about your upcoming sale or product release isn’t a social media “plan.” It’s just posting things haphazardly on the web, hoping that people will find it interesting. You’re a marketer. You’re much smarter than that.

Instead, begin your plan by investing in some third-party investigative research into your customer mindset. Combine quantitative and qualitative data (statistics, interviews) to really understand what makes your customers tick. How old is your average customer? Location? Family make up? (This is the statistical part that you’ll learn through quantitative research.) What are their opinions on your brand? What other brands do they use, and why? How do they prefer to be contacted by you? What kinds of updates are they interested in hearing about from your company? (You’ll learn this in the qualitative interview part.)

Once you have a solid picture of who your average customer is, you’ll know whether social media is the right medium to use for communication, and, if it isn’t, you won’t waste your time sending out status updates that no one wants to read.

Please don’t take this advice like it’s going to stifle all of your fun on social media. Au contraire: once you know who your customers are, you can really have fun with social media and post things that are interesting to your followers, even if it’s not directly tied to your brand. (Because remember, they’ll still see your brand name on your post.) Let’s illustrate this a bit more, shall we?

Say you have a super hipster BBQ restaurant in San Francisco. All of your meat is sustainably sourced, your waiters all have long beards and wear skinny jeans, and the cocktails are made by true mixologists. From your qualitative research, you know that your customers really dig fermented foods. So you include house-made sauerkraut and pickled vegetables on your menu. But since you know your customer so well, you take it a step further and use social media to promote a local book signing by a beloved fermentation master. Maybe you even throw an event around it – a free class on pickling at your restaurant after the event. The takeaway here is that your social media plan becomes an extension of your restaurant and all of the hipster things that your clientele digs. These are the kinds of posts that will get you shares and loyal followings. Think of it as added value.

Next up: Do some social media stalking (but not the creepy kind)

Once you start to attract a following, it’s perfectly okay and totally not creepy to do some social media stalking with your new virtual friends. Check out the pages of people who follow you. What other brands do they follow? Which posts do they “like”? Do they share posts, and if so, what’s the pattern? You can learn a lot about people’s online reading and sharing activity just by scanning their pages. Use your intel to post subjects that are likely to interest them, based on their past activity. Then, once your posting strategy is in place, you can analyze your own page analytics to see how people respond to your posts.

A final word of advice: Make your social media page a two-way conversation

The beauty of social media is that it’s a direct link from you to your customers. Pay attention to what customers post, and respond back in a timely manner (within 24 hours). Customers are increasingly using social media for their customer service channel, so you may even need to hire someone(s) to manage customer questions. Use your pages to interact with your customers. Ask them for feedback. Hold contests. Make your page interactive, and truly listen to what your customers have to say.

A word of caution before we end here: If you don’t manage your social media page, your customers will for you, and your page could become filled with complaints or negative things about your brand. Put some effort and resources into your brand’s pages. With some upfront customer recon, your social media strategy can be a flourishing component to your overall marketing mix.

How well do you know your customers? Let’s have a chat about them before you start that social media plan >