As a local small business owner, you might have limited resources to promote your business. You stretch every dollar the best you can.

Compare to traditional marketing channels such as direct mail or print advertising, social media marketing is a low-cost solution that can be extremely effective. What you do need, however, is to invest in a little time to do it right.

Steve Strauss, best-selling author of Small Business Bible, said that, “Hands down, the biggest mistake small businesses are making on social media is not using social media.”.

So, what can social media marketing do and how can I use it?

When used correctly, social media allows you to connect with your audience on an authentic and human level. In turn, your audience gets to know you and your business, creating mind share. When the right time comes, your audience will remember you and, hopefully, do business with you.

Some savvy business owners are using social media to stay connected with their existing customers–and you should, too.

If a customer had a bad experience, chances are he/she is going to talk about it on social media, tag you and make sure everyone in his/her network knows about it.

If you keep a pulse on social media and respond where appropriate, you can turn a potentially bad word-of-mouth into a positive PR.

OK, how do I start?

1. Know your audience.

Who are your customers and prospects? What are their age, gender, interests, profession, etc.? What needs do they have that you, and your business, can help solve? What messages do you want to send out?

2. Know where they go.

Which social media platforms (Facebook, Pinterest, etc.) does your audience prefer? Become familiar with each social media platform and how to use them properly. Did you know that each social media platform has a certain day of the week–even time of the day–that your message will be most likely read?

3. Start small and grow.

It takes time and energy to manage social media properly. So, start with a manageable schedule. Choose one platform that most of your audience uses.

To do it right, incorporate your social media marketing with your website. Guide your audience to your website to learn more about your company or products and services. Lead them to your blog. Use Call-to-Action technique to encourage your audience to do “something” such as to follow you on Twitter or to like you on Facebook. Make it easy for your audience to share your blog posts or articles.

4. The more you help others the more you gain.

Remember, you are building a relationship with your audience. No one likes to constantly read about you. Instead, follow the 80-20 rule. Focus 80% of your messages toward your audience. Give them some sound advice. Let them know the latest trend related to your industry that they’d appreciate. Use the 20% to promote your new product or service, or to announce your promotions.

Final thoughts

As you can see, when used properly social media can be a great marketing and customer service tool for your business. It does take time but it’s totally worth it.

Once you become comfortable with one social media platform, add another as your time permits then repeat. You may find one day that it makes sense to add an employee to manage it for you full time or to outsource it to capable hands.

So, which social media platform do you use to reach your target audience? What’s working for you? What challenges did you have to overcome? Let’s share.