Many small businesses think they have to be active in social media just because it's become such a central part of big brand marketing and pop culture. I get it. It's starting to feel like if you're not in social media, you're not doing real marketing anymore. And in many categories, that may be true. Social media has become the great connector, aligning brands and customers in real time in ways never seen in marketing.

But you can't just jump into social media because you feel obligated. You need a plan of attack that makes sense for your brand and your customer. It may not make sense for your customer to engage. The key is to know when using social media fits strategically with what you are trying to accomplish.

It starts with knowing what your brand is about and how your customers live their lives -- a marketing fundamental no matter the medium. If you have a more private brand with customers who don't want to share their stories, you probably have no business using social media channels to connect with them.

Here are some key factors to consider when determining what role social media plays in your marketing strategy:

Take a hard look at your business:

  • Is your business intuitively "social"?
  • Is social media a forced-fit or does it come naturally?
  • Does your line of work make sense to be in the public domain?

Then look carefully at your customer:

  • Is your customer intuitively "social"?
  • Is it natural to connect with them in social channels?
  • Will they feel comfortable interacting with you publically?

You may not answer yes to all of those questions, which means you have to tread carefully into social media if you want it to work for you.

For example, if you're a consultant helping customers become more effective at what they do, they may not want public acknowledgement. They also may not want to talk about work in social channels.

But that doesn't mean you have to walk away from social media entirely. It's just a matter of how to use it. Even if you don't use it to engage with your customers, social media can still serve other strategic purposes.

You can use LinkedIn to target prospects and network with colleagues. Use Twitter to showcase thought leadership by commenting and offering a point of view on news, trends, and events, separate from any customer interaction. This is a great way to position yourself in your industry without necessarily outing customers and asking them to engage with you publicly.

The key is to approach all parts of your marketing with confidence and a clear sense of purpose aligned with your brand and customers. Social media should not be an automatic, but rather a strategically approached medium through which to showcase your brand.