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Grow Your Business Social Media

5 Lessons Small Businesses Can Learn about Social Media from Big Brands

Automated social media software, tech tools to avoid
Credit: chinnapong/Shutterstock

A great social media presence is essential for any business. Large corporations and big brands are keenly aware that 81 percent of consumers make buying decisions based on the social media posts of family and friends, and 78 percent of people say that companies' social media posts influence their purchases. If you are still in doubt about social media's ability to make or devastate a business just consider the case of Snap Inc., which lost $1.3 billion in market value due to a single tweet from Kylie Jenner.

While large brands have big marketing budgets, smaller businesses often have to make do with fewer resources. In fact, a whopping 49 percent of small businesses don't have a formal social media marketing strategy in place, according to a Netsertive survey.

The good news is that small businesses can adapt some of the social media strategies used by the big players to create their own impactful and shareable content. Here are a few lessons you can learn from some of the larger brands that are dominating the social media landscape. [Interested in social media marketing tools? Check out our best picks.]

Popular camera manufacturer GoPro harnesses the power of user-generated content by asking consumers to submit shots and videos they create with the tiny wearable cameras. These videos are often widely shared online, show the product in action and make the user's experience the focus of the brand's social media content. In addition to becoming a viral sensation on YouTube, the videos are also shown on a GoPro channel on Virgin America Airlines and have a streaming option on Xbox, Roku and other smart TVs. GoPro incentivizes users to submit their best photos, raw clips and video edits by offering GoPro Awards to the favorites in each category, along with cash prizes.

Like GoPro, you can find ways to create a user-generated content campaign that engages your audience and uses their input as content on your social media platform. This may include sharing customer reviews, reposting photos shared by fans, or creating some sort of video contest and posting the best entries.

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A manufacturer of upscale outdoor clothing and gear for silent sports (surfing, climbing, trail running, etc.), Patagonia is deeply committed to social responsibility and contributes to a number of grassroots environmental initiatives. It uses various social media platforms to showcase its commitment to the environment and build a community of people who share its values.

By continuously linking back to its core beliefs in its social media content, Patagonia's messaging and voice remain consistent and authentic, which further helps connect it to its central customer. Patagonia's blog, The Cleanest Line, shares stories about the environment while its podcast, created in partnership with the Dirtbag Diaries, is dedicated to the outdoors.

The company produces and supports films that tackle environmental issues, such as "Blue Heart," a soon-to-be released documentary about the last wild rivers in Europe and the irreversible damage caused to them by hydropower dams. Patagonia's efforts against disposable consumerism have also led it to establish Worn Wear, a website that sells used Patagonia gear, and it has recently launched Patagonia Action Works, a digital platform to connect costumers with local grassroots environmental organizations.

Small businesses should stand in their truth and being unapologetically unique, especially on social media. Not everyone will share your passion for the same issues, but your target customer will be drawn to you for your honesty. Rather than focus on promoting sales, use your social media to create an engaging, authentic voice that your customers care about. If you're committed to social responsibility, make it a central component of your online platform so your audience knows where you stand.

Taco Bell knows the ins and outs of the youth demographic and uses this knowledge to create content that is a witty, timely and even a little sarcastic. This Tex-Mex fast food chain keeps things light and entertaining focusing on all things tacos with emojis and memes thrown in for good measure.

In 2015, it lobbied for a taco emoji by starting a petition on Change.org that garnered 33,000 signatures. It later created the Taco Emoji Engine where users who tweet a taco emoji and another emoji at the brand's account are sent a custom mashup of the two images. In the first five days of introducing this feature, the company received more than half a million direct tweets.

Another successful campaign includes a social media blackout in 2014 to create buzz ahead of the launch of the Taco Bell app. In just 24 hours, this became one of the most downloaded apps in Apple's "food and drink" category, with 75 percent of all Taco Bell stores having processed a mobile order. Taco Bell also keeps it real by engaging in amusing banter with other brands and competitors, using humor as often as possible, and jumping on trending topics and hashtags.

Taco Bell teaches brands how to create a consistent voice and tone in their social media – one that resonates with your audience and influences how they see your brand. Listen to your audience and find ways to relate to them without looking like you are trying too hard. Most importantly, don't be afraid to show a little personality. This helps present your business as adaptive, friendly and relevant.

A serious rival to the traditional hospitality industry, Airbnb has used social media to drive its success and a big part of that strategy has been its use of influencers. These individuals can be anyone with an extensive presence on one or multiple social media platforms, with a particularly high level of follower engagement. According to Mediakix, influencer marketing is expected to grow to a $5 to $10 billion market by 2020. [Read related article: Influencer Marketing 101: What Small Businesses Need to Know]

Airbnb has tapped into the potential of influencers by partnering with both the biggest names in the entertainment industry as well as an eclectic community of travelers and bloggers who help to endorse and legitimize the brand and create visibility of it among their legions of social media followers. Mariah Carey, Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga are only a few of the many celebrities who have shared sponsored posts with their fans highlighting their Airbnb stays. 

Lady Gaga sent out a single tweet to her more than 25 million Instagram followers about her stay at an Airbnb Houston property during the 2017 Super Bowl. She received more than half a million likes and 4,000 comments in return, generating a tremendous amount of exposure for Airbnb.

Small businesses can't afford to hire superstars, but you can identify micro-influencers (who usually have less than 10,000 followers) within your own industry, niche market or local area. You can connect with them by using tools such as BuzzSumo, BuzzStream, Followerwonk and Twitter lists. If you determine that they are a good fit for your brand, consider asking them to collaborate on one of your social media campaigns. Just stay out of trouble with the Federal Trade Commission by making sure your influencers disclose that they are being compensated for promoting your brand by adding #ad or #sponsored to their posts.

Though Starbucks has recently faced criticism for its mistreatment of customers in one of its stores, the company has long been credited with creating an engaging social media presence that supports a sustained and responsive customer service experience online. Starbucks is one of the most popular global chains, and it maintains this status by harnessing the power of social media to provide timely information and meaningful feedback to its customers. In 2012, the company made a commitment to provide one-on-one customer engagement across its social media platforms. This includes swiftly responding to criticism, quickly answering questions and welcoming positive feedback. They also have a separate Twitter account, @MyStarbucksIdeas, where customers can submit suggestions for improvements, as well as, join discussions and offer feedback to other people's ideas. This account alone has more than 55,000 followers with some 150,000 ideas submitted during the last five years.

Your small business may not be able to afford a 24/7 customer service team, but you can use a social media monitoring tool like Buzzlogix  and Keyhole to track mentions and find out if your audience has questions that require an immediate response. You then can reply instantly via social media, which increases your customer's satisfaction and helps your brand stand out from the crowd. Additionally, you can set up a dedicated social handle for customer support and include it on your company's main social profile so people know where to find help.

Paula Fernandes

Paula is a New Jersey-based writer with a Bachelor's degree in English and a Master's degree in Education. She spent nearly a decade working in education, primarily as the director of a college's service-learning and community outreach center. Her prior experience includes stints in corporate communications, publishing, and public relations for non-profits. Reach her by email.