Originally published in The Frederick News Post

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My, how times have changed.

As an owner of an 11-year-old small business, I am amazed at changes in marketing over the past decade.

When we started, the Internet was still shiny and new. Now, we take it for granted.

Having a website for your business was once considered optional. Now, it is a must.

But, what about social media? Do all small businesses need to have a presence there? That depends.

First, before you ask any question about online marketing, you need to get to know your target audience.

I’ve met with thousands of businesses to talk about online marketing in some shape or form. The one mistake that most of them make is assuming the conversation needs to start with a decision about technology. This is so far from the truth. Tech should be the last item on the agenda.

You have to know your audience! Who are your customers? What do they care about? What are they really buying?

Hint: People who purchase a car aren’t usually buying the “car.”

People buy from you because they trust you. They buy from you because others trust you and you have a message that resonates with them.

Building trust takes time. Knowing what your audience needs from you helps. Speaking their language helps. Knowing the information you can share with them that will have them saying, “Thanks!” is the trick to making all of this online marketing stuff work.

Once you’ve taken some time to understand your audience and you have a list of their needs, you can start talking strategy. How will you help them?

Marketing today is a process of education, validation and conversion.

Education

Share your expert knowledge. Write posts for your blog and other blogs that your audience will find useful. Create how-to videos. Interview experts and share that on your blog and on social channels.

Your audience is looking for your help. They need your content because you are an expert and can help them. What is the last piece of advice you gave to a client that they thanked you for? Could you turn this into an educational blog post? (The answer is yes, by the way.)

Validation

In posting this educational content, you will start to gain a following. Some of these followers — if you are providing truly valuable content — will become rabid fans.

They will consistently give you praise. This can come in the form of blog comments, referrals or simply “likes” and “shares” on social channels.

You know who else will validate your efforts? Google. Providing valuable content to a target group of people is what gets you to show up in their search results.

Conversion

Remember, people do business with people they like and trust. They trust you because you’ve educated them and your efforts have been validated by other people and organizations they trust.

But, you still have to ask for the business. I have never subscribed to the “if you build it …” approach to the Internet. You have to guide your prospect through the sales process.

This can happen on your website, in an email newsletter, and yes, even on social media. By giving them something, you are putting yourself in a much better position to ask for something, such as:

Sign up for a newsletter in exchange for a free eBook;
Instructional content with a call to action for a product;
A discount to try out something new.
The key to conversion is making it something your clients will thank you for.

If you ask for the business at the wrong time, before you have built trust, your conversion numbers will be very low.

Social media

So, what does all of this have to do with social media? Everything!

It’s not a question of Facebook vs. LinkedIn.

It’s a question of where you can connect with your audience and:

Educate them;
Earn their trust;
Earn the validation of other people and Google;
Convert them into a client and/or fan.
Knowing these things will simplify choosing social channels and social marketing strategies. Plan your content, don’t let it control you. List your goals, list their goals — where they meet are your marketing priorities.

Good luck, and happy marketing!

Jon-Mikel Bailey is a speaker and blogger on online marketing and a principal in the digital communications firm Wood Street, Inc. in Frederick. He has been a presenter at SCORE Fredrick workshops.

SCORE is a nationwide volunteer network of 330 chapters dedicated to the formation, growth and success of small businesses. SCORE Frederick provides free and confidential business advice and mentoring to start-up businesses and to established small businesses. SCORE Frederick also offers workshops for both start-ups and established businesses.

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