Social media for business: what can it do for you?

How can businesses use social media effectively?

Once you know your target audience and have identified the social networks that they use regularly, you can begin to connect to and engage with them. But be warned - this is the point where many companies start to get social media wrong.

They treat social media as simply an advertising channel, clogging it with sales pitches and press releases. Or they 'broadcast' to the people that follow them, when they should be 'engaging' them in conversation and listening to what they have to say.

How to use social media for your business

Our top tips for using social media effectively to grow a business are simple:

1. Start slowly on Facebook or Twitter. You don't need to be on every platform

2. Make a plan. Define what you want to achieve, who's going to manage your social media channels and what metrics you will use to measure success

3. Start a conversation. Engage with fans or followers, honestly answer their questions, listen to what they have to say and thank them for their comments. Ask questions of your own, run polls, special offers or hold competitions to encourage interactivity

4. Share relevant content. If you run a business selling garage doors, people won't necessarily be interested in garage door news. But they might value offers of ongoing support and useful maintenance advice. Find what works for your business

5. Create advocates. Be friendly and helpful, share useful and relevant content, and reward frequent commenters. Give people a good experience, above and beyond what they expect, and they may become your 'brand advocates', helping you to grow your business

How to use social media for your business

6. Don't post too frequently. You run the risk of overwhelming the people that follow you. Nobody likes a spammer

7. Automate. Use tools such as Hootsuite and Buffer to monitor your social media efforts and make it easier to create, post and schedule updates. Don't overdo the automation, however. People will want to see that there's a real person behind the business. Try one of these top social media analytics tools.

8. Don't hire an expert. You don't need one. What you might need is somebody to help you create content that will be valuable to your followers

9. Expand your reach. Once you have established a Facebook page or Twitter feed, give people other ways to connect with you - Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest and YouTube are natural extensions

10. Be patient. You won't see results overnight. It takes time to build a community around a brand and its products.

There is no magic formula for social media success. But it doesn't have to be expensive or take up a lot of valuable time. Approach the social media challenge with an open mind and be prepared to work at it. Learn from what other companies are doing and find ways to differentiate your business from theirs so that it stands out from the crowd.