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Marketing your business on the major social media sites is the newest way to build customer relationships by engaging with your customers and prospects on a personal level. There are many types of social media platforms: social networking sites, blogs, forums, and bookmarking sites. Social media marketing allows you to build your brand identity, generate traffic back to your website, and build links. Best of all, it costs little to nothing in monetary terms, but a daily investment of time and effort can translate to big wins in customer acquisition.

Most successful brands leverage their presence on the major social networking sites: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Google+. There are many other smaller social communities (Digg, Reddit, StumbleUpon, etc.), but it is best to start on some of the major platforms and add involvement in other communities over time, as monitoring several social media sites can be difficult. Given the majority share of social media traffic on the “Big Five”, a healthy presence on some or all of these is usually sufficient for most small businesses.

It is important to remember that social media is personal and conversational – it is not a hard sell for your business. Use it to build deeper relationships with your customers, and contribute in a genuine and useful manner to establish credibility. Over time, you will build a loyal following, and generate incremental traffic to your website.

There is no “one size fits all” strategy for social media. Your  engagement on the various platforms should be dictated by where your prospects and customers tend to be. Spend some time figuring out where to invest your efforts.

Marketing strategies on each network are varied – you can run contests, poll prospects and customers, segment users by different criteria such as demographics and lifestyle, and much more. The most successful brands share a few characteristics, but primarily find ways to engage with their “fans” in creative, compelling ways that cement brand loyalty.

Don’t forget to optimize your profile on each social network. Use your target keywords in your profile, your headline, and in your summary. You should also provide a link back to your website and your blog so that people can find you and your business.

Many small business owners inwardly groan at the thought of taking on social media activities as part of their marketing efforts. However, once you figure out where your prospects and customers are, engaging with them does not have to take countless hours out of your busy day. There are many social media management services such as HootSuite or TweetDeck that enable you to track mentions of your brand, schedule posts, and measure engagement. Once a strategy is in place, you don’t need to spend more than 15-30 minutes every day managing your social presence.

With the increasing emphasis on social signals as a ranking factor in Google’s algorithm, social media engagement has become a necessity. Like it or not, this is a marketing channel that is here to stay. To use an old adage, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!” What are you waiting for?