Almost every business has a Facebook page or Twitter handle which they think will be the silver bullet to getting big sales. It’s not that simple. Here are seven ways that work but won’t break the bank.

There’s no denying that Australians have a love affair with social media, but according to a recent report, only one in five SMEs have any sort of plan to take advantage of it.

The latest Sensis Social Media Report states that many businesses using social media still lack knowledge and direction about how to use it and its effectiveness for the business:

  • 49% of SMEs and 45% of large businesses said they have invested money in social media but don’t know how much.
  • Only 16% of SMEs and 29% of large businesses measure their return on investment in social media.
  • 80% of SMEs and 37% of large businesses have not developed a strategic plan for their social media.

So how do you do it? Just setting up a Facebook account and plastering it with advertising isn’t going to cut it. To create awareness through social media you have to engage with your audience, which means creating likes, shares and comments.

Here are seven measures to increase your digital footprint without breaking the bank.

1. Define your audience

As an entrepreneur you know your customers best. While they might come from different age groups and social backgrounds, there are always things they have in common. Listen to them and ask for their opinion when they are in your shop.

Once you know what makes them tick, you’ll know how to speak to them effectively. Just look at the way Domino is trying to appeal to male single teens and tweens on their Facebook page by featuring young blokes with mullets who make fun of themselves. Where upmarket Crust Gourmet Pizza is going after a more mature audience with its campaigns about “Romancing your tastebuds with Truffle Beef Rossini”. All pizza lovers are not alike.

2. Match your platform to your customer

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are free and simple-to-use platforms to reach a wide audience. If you are after a younger target group, use Tumblr, Vine or Snapchat. For seasoned professionals, there is LinkedIn while Facebook, Twitter and YouTube seem to be a safe bet to reach a wide market across most age groups.

3. Create your message

Your message can be a blog, comment, video clip or just a photo. But don’t use social media as a cheap advertising platform, because it doesn’t work that way. The online community wants to be entertained, informed and even challenged.

Posting a genuine question about how you can improve your product would get people more engaged than a generic statement about the “best deals in town”. Keep in mind that social media is not a selling tool but a way to win trust and credibility by being fair and honest.

4. Engage genuinely with audiences

If you are bold enough to ask for advice, take on board what people tell you. The social sphere is smart and has a long memory. So, if you don’t follow up on announced actions, you risk looking like someone who can’t be trusted.

Provide updates on recommendations and don’t forget to thank those who gave you candid feedback. Ignore the trolls, love the haters and don’t engage in mudslinging – even when it is sometimes very tempting as London-based chef Claude Bosi found out.

Bosi responded with abuse after reading a negative review from an online critic from a relatively unknown blog with about 300 followers. The escalating fight resulted in national media coverage and did no service to the reputation of the restaurant.

5. Engage offline and build online

Many businesses advertise awards or rebates if customers “like” their Facebook page. This is easy to implement and to control, as customers can provide evidence for their endorsement on their smart phone.

You could also ask clients who had a great experience with your business to provide an online testimony. Another option is a referral promotion where customers are offered a prize or rebate when they refer a certain number of people to a website.

This works via a unique link that allows you to track the URL of new site visitors back to the original source of the referral. This method spreads your message fast and widely.

6. Be patient, measure and improve

Don’t give up, even when no-one is following. It’s a popular myth that you have to create a “viral” message that conquers the globe to grow your audience. If your current strategy is not working, try something new.

There are many ways to get the attention of the online community. You can run a survey about a popular topic and publish the results, or you can create a series of funny questions and offer a prize for the person who answers them first or you simply share a hilarious story or picture you found online.

Keep reaching out to people, but don’t be pushy. No one likes the ‘foot in the door’ salesman.

7. Social media is only part of the solution

Spend most of your time improving your product or service, because this is what matters most. There are tons of free online tools to help you to analyse your success rate, find the best time for messaging and to send scheduled messages out.

Some of the big social media players also offer cheap advertising options to increase your profile, it might we worth a look.

Five online tools that will help:

www.rankspeed.com

www.hootsuite.com

www.buffer.com

www.agorapulse.com

www.klear.com