With so many social media outlets to choose from -- Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, YouTube and Google+, as well as more specialized sites -- how do you pick the one, or three, that will deliver the best return on your investment of time and resources? To find out, CIO.com queried dozens of IT executives and social media experts. Following are their top six tips for choosing the best social media sites for your small business.
1. Identify Specifically What Want to Accomplish Via Social Media
"To find out what the best channel is for your social media outreach, you first need to define what your business goals are--i.e., focusing ontop-of-the-funnel KPIs like extending your brand recognition or bottom-of-the-funnel KPIs such as lead form submissions or ecommerce purchases," says Lauren Fairbanks, chief content strategist, Stunt & Gimmick's, a creative content agency.
"For example, if you want to improve your organic search rankings, then Google+ and YouTube can help," says Martin Wong, CMO SMARTT, a Web design and digital marketing firm. "If your intent is to provide customer support over social media, then it makes sense to do so over Facebook and Twitter," he says.
Or maybe you want to use social media as part of your customer service and support efforts. "Social strategies aren't only for marketing," says Kristin Muhlner, CEO, newBrandAnalytics. So if customer services and support is one of your top goals, "before choosing your top platforms, conduct an audit of social channels that help you support your overall customer service and communications strategy in a manageable way," she says.
The bottom line: "The clearer your objectives and metrics are, the easier it will be for you to measure and manage your results," says Wong.
2. Figure Out Where Your Customers Are
"When deciding on which social media service is best for your business, you need to determine the social networks that your customers are using," says Shane Gamble, marketing coordinator and ecommerce advisor, Sweet Tooth, a customer loyalty and rewards service. "For example, if your target market is women aged 25 to 34, it would be wise to have an active presence on Pinterest."
Similarly, "if your products are consumer-oriented, use Pinterest and Facebook," says Becky Boyd, vice president, MediaFirst, a technology PR agency. "If you offer more B2B solutions, LinkedIn (and LinkedIn Groups that would interest your audience) and Twitter are best." And if you want to demonstrate something visually, use YouTube."
How can you determine which social media sites your existing and prospective customers use? By "using existing CRM, social metrics, Web analytics and customer surveys," says Brad Lowrey, digital manager at public relations agency Weber Shandwick. "There is no sense putting in resources and effort being on a platform like Twitter or Pinterest if only five percent of your customers are active there."
Another approach: "Start a fresh GMail account," suggests Christopher S. Penn, vice president, Marketing Technology, SHIFT Communications. "Upload the contact info for your top 100 customers, prospects and partners. Go to each social network's settings and click 'Find my friends' or the equivalent." Next, he says, "Do a quick count of how many out of your top 100 contacts are on each network. Then focus your time and energy on the network(s) with the highest percentage of people you already do business with."
3. Choose a Site that Provides a Good Platform for the Type of Information You Want to Share
"Pinterest and Instagram are excellent for anyone who has a lot of visual content to share: fashion, home design, etc.," explains Alexandra Golaszewska, the owner of AlexandraGo. If you want to connect with other businesses, and provide B2B content, she suggests you use LinkedIn. If you are a retail business and want to reach customers via specials and promotions, consider Foursquare.
4. Look for Social Media Services That are Mobile-Friendly
"Over one billion smartphone users and counting means that mobile UX is more important than ever," says Muhlner. "Put your resources into social platforms with geolocation services that your users can interact with anywhere, anytime, and you'll have a direct channel to them 24/7."
5. Consider Industry-Specific or Niche Social Networking Sites
"Businesses should identify specific social networks based on their business/brand goals and target audiences," says Stephanie Shkolnik, social media director, Digitaria, a full-service digital agency.
For example, "If you need to reach physicians, and research indicates this segment uses private medical networks like Sermo for professional use, your business should develop a presence in this community to reach the right people in the most appropriate environment where they are open to medical related discussions."
6. Try a Few Social Media Services and Objectively Quantify the Decision with Metrics
"Google Analytics is an excellent free resource with built-in social tracking that can help you easily ascertain not only which social channel drives the most inbound referral traffic or results in the highest goal/ecommerce conversions but also which content is most engaging and valuable to your users," says Jennifer Stagner, who manages the SEO for office supply company TOPS Products.
"Readily accessible metrics allows you to maximize your ROI by focusing on the channels that truly deliver," she says. Indeed, "you may find that for all of your Pinterest enthusiasm, LinkedIn still results in the highest revenue stream, or that your customer demographics are split evenly between Facebook and Twitter."
The bottom line: "The best social media outlet for your business is the one that your customers are using," says Golaszewska. "No matter how much hype a site gets, if it isn't a good fit for your business, you won't see much return on your investment."
Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a contributor to CIO.com and runs a marketing communications firm focused on helping organizations better interact with their customers, employees, and partners.
Read more about social media in CIO's Social Media Drilldown.