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Using social media to improve your business

By Christine Romans, CNN
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Social media key to small businesses
  • Small businesses can't afford to ignore marketing potential of Facebook and Twitter
  • Don't just self-promote and do ask your customers how you can improve
  • Be nimble and turn problems into opportunities
  • Think of a tweet as a "tap on the shoulder" and cultivate consistent online persona

Editor's note: Christine Romans is anchor of CNN's "Your $$$$$" and author of the new book "Smart Is the New Rich."

New York (CNN) -- You've tried to, but so far, your foray into social media marketing is not adding to sales, just to headaches.

How will Twitter sell sweets at your ice cream parlor? How will Facebook fill your restaurant or sell your handmade frocks?

I've heard the complaint from small business owners and professionals a million times: "How can I monetize social media?"

Mitch Goldstone has owned a photo-developing shop in Irvine, California, since 1990. He used to develop 24-exposure film cartridges. Today he takes those shoe boxes of photos under your bed and scans them so you can use them online. has 10,600 followers on Twitter and Goldstone has sent 32,000 tweets.

He doesn't just self-promote. He shares links and product reviews, and blends into a running conversation online about all things photo. His presence on Twitter and Facebook has taken his Irvine photo shop international. He scans photos from three miles away in Irvine to thousands of miles away in Australia.

"If you're not into social media social networking you will be out of business. I'm going to repeat that: You will be out of business if you don't tweet, use Facebook, and social media today," Goldstone says.

Ido Leffler is the co-founder of natural beauty brand "Yes To..."

When an expensive traditional print marketing campaign fell flat, he and his partner turned to social media to find the face to their product. Their Facebook campaign attracted 150,000 fans and sales doubled in six months.

Social media, in his view, is an equalizer. Anyone can use it, and using it well means new customers.

"Today you don't have to spend any money at all to set up a Facebook fan page. You don't need a huge marketing fund to set up a Twitter account. You need zero," Leffler says.

Here are some dos and don'ts from accomplished users of social media:

'It just takes too much time and doesn't add to sales'

Wrong attitude. You can't afford not to. An online presence is like a phone number: Your customers expect it and are looking for you online.

Listen to your customers

Listen to what your customers are saying about your business through social media. Answer them individually if you can. Word of mouth, good and bad, can have a powerful effect on sales. If it's bad, ask your customers how you can do better.

Be nimble

In California, a group of hip food vendor trucks tweet their location each day so office workers can pop in.

In New York, a brutal snowstorm last February meant the hit show "Mamma Mia" would be empty on Broadway. The theater tweeted discount tickets for the brave Manhattanites who could walk through the snow, and the house filled.

Watch your competitors

You can get great ideas by watching how others in your industry are using social media.

A 'tap on the shoulder'

Comedian Hal Sparks, who uses social media to listen to his fans and promote his appearances, suggests thinking of a tweet as "a tap on the shoulder."

More than self-promotion

Customers respond to well-timed discounts and coupons, but free advice and interesting links also get attention.

Cultivate a consistent online persona

"Social media is a great place to be authentic and let your customers know who you are and tell your story," says Mike Hofman, deputy editor, Inc. Magazine.

Astringent, corporate sounding prose won't get you very far. People who respond to social media move fast, are bright and want clever and succinct.

Take it seriously

Designate who in the business will be the online voice and keep it consistent. Some small business owners designate a junior, tech-savvy employee. While that can sometimes work, don't just designate and forget it.

"That can be a problem because do you really want your intern getting your brand message out there and being sort of the arbiter of who you are in the wider commercial world?" says Inc's Hofman.

CNN producer Joanna Digeronimo contributed to this report.