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Do you have a social media presence? The benefits are immense, yet a study conducted by IBM found that social media is currently the least used of all customer engagement methods -- many CEOs are unsure even where to start. Whether you're launching a startup or expanding an established business, if you're an entrepreneur and you don't have a social media presence, your company is at a competitive disadvantage.
I've built a strong online presence over the last few years and am always thinking of new ways to expand our reach. I think this is partly because I was already comfortable with the basic concepts: after all, my first successful business was in the media. When I was 16 years old, my friends and I started up Student Magazine. Although I didn't give myself the title of publisher, that's what my job was, in retrospect.
We launched our monthly publication hoping to provide young people with a platform to protest the injustice of the Vietnam War. It soon became a place where up-and-coming talents showcased their work, and we also published impassioned thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre, inspired writers like James Baldwin and imaginative artists like David Hockney. The magazine was an exciting forum that allowed people to creatively express their views and try to initiate change. We didn't know it back then, but it was the foundation upon which the Virgin Group would be built.
A few decades (who's counting?!) later, I'm back in publishing, though now through my blog and other social media channels.
Businesses that are looking for an edge still need to concentrate on getting their stories onto the local newspapers' front pages. There is always a lot to be gained when the press gets interested in brilliant initiatives going on at your company. But one thing I learned over the years was that our companies were not going to be the focus of media attention every day, so I needed other ways to get some messages across and keep my customers engaged.
Today entrepreneurs need to take their businesses to where the conversation is happening -- mobile phones, tablets and laptops. Social media is the perfect venue, and my guess is that one of the reasons for the tepid response from most companies is a lack of understanding of how to use these channels properly.
Here are a few guidelines that will make your posts and your company stand out:
1. Provide high quality content.
While my friends and I had a lot of fun running Student Magazine, we also had a meaningful message. These days, as well as sharing what is going on in my life and exchanging messages with all sorts of interesting people, I use social media to highlight issues that affect us all. A blog post can kick-start a debate and make an impact in the real world.
2. Social media isn't just a one-way street.
I always try to make time to reply to people (including by answering readers' questions in these columns). Many good ideas for future blogs are sparked by reading the comments online and the conversations they spark. If you're expecting people to be intrigued by what you and your business have to say, you have to genuinely be interested in their feedback.
3. Tell a few jokes.
As always: Don't take yourself too seriously. You have a lot of opportunities to make people smile via social media. When we started Student we were young and definitely just as focused on having a good time as on getting an issue out by deadline. For us there was no difference between work and play - and there still isn't today. Among my posts and tweets you'll find lots of funny tales, cheeky questions and the odd photo of me making a fool of myself.
4. Give them the genuine article.
Try to make sure your posts and tweets provide a true reflection of yourself, and not just your professional persona. Whether on social media, on a plane or in the office, you (and your business) are far more likely to make an impression if you let your real personality shine through.
Once you get started, you'll soon learn that by embracing social media you can keep in touch with and inform your customers to a greater degree than ever before, and through that exchange, broaden your understanding of your business's horizons. So tweet hello and then publish a post introducing yourself and your company, because it's time to get the conversation started.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.