There’s a school of thought that says the likes of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are narrowing the social marketing opportunities available to small businesses by giving precedence to advertisers and blocking organic distribution of commercial content. They’re certainly profiting from rising ad income – just take a look at LinkedIn’s revenue from the first quarter of 2016.

But that’s not the whole story.

The nascent social media of the mid-noughties was the crucible of an unprecedented era of near-unregulated online marketing activity. Small businesses helmed by social-savvy entrepreneurs grew into ecommerce empires over rapid timescales whilst spending nary a penny for their digital advertising real estate.

Those days are over, but there’s still ample opportunity for ambitious SMEs to grow and prosper through social marketing. Here are a few case studies that prove the point, along with some tips to borrow for your own business:

Grace & Thorn – florists – London

London florists Grace & Thorn aren’t just a small business – they’re social media superstars.
They’ve focused their efforts intently on building a stunning Instagram profile – and they’ve been rewarded with 18,000 followers and counting. That’s a massive on-demo audience with a proven interest in the brand.

Instagram is the perfect social platform for businesses with visually compelling products like flowers, clothing or art. By interspersing their high quality product photography with photos of dogs, children, wedding parties and a panoply of picturesque scenes, Grace & Thorn position their products as a facet of a desirable, Insta-filtered lifestyle. For one of their images to yield fewer than 100 interactions is a rarity.

However cautious your estimate of conversions from social successes to sales, there’s no denying this must be good for business.

Growing your Instagram account

So how exactly do you go about building an Instagram empire like Grace & Thorn’s? Before we make an attempt at answering that, we would urge you to consider whether this is the right platform for your business to focus on. Are your products or services truly visually arresting? Are they photogenic? Will they appeal to Instagram’s core audience of bright, young aesthetes? If so, we may well be onto something here… Let’s go through a few key points on how you can grow your Instagram account:

Start strong – Instagram users might enjoy tracking the development of your business, but they’re less likely to enjoy following your development as a photographer. You need to ensure the staff member responsible for your Instagram posts is a master of their craft. If you’re taking on the job yourself, try creating a personal account first. Upload some pictures and try using as many types of filter as possible. If you link the account to your Facebook profile you’ll get a good idea of the types of photo that drive engagements. Your business’ Instagram account should feature a full page of high quality posts before you start marketing to the public.

Tag, tag, tag! – Tags are Instagram’s mechanism for organic content distribution. Users search for subjects that interest them, which generates results based on the text tags attached to certain images by the uploaders. You should never upload an Instagram image without adding tags. Try to include a healthy mix of short and long keywords.

Find your audience – Unlike Facebook, Instagram lets you follow your prospective customers’ profiles. That’s important, as it allows you to pinpoint the people who would likely be interested in your brand and initiate a relationship with them, without spending a penny. That doesn’t mean you can spam them – simply follow, and if they really are the kind of person who would be interested in your brand, there’s a good chance they’ll return the favour. The amount of accounts you follow should never greatly outweigh the amount of users following your own account, so be picky.

Ana White – carpenter – Alaska

Ana White’s unstoppable rise is social media marketing textbook material. From obscure beginnings in 2009, this intrepid Alaskan carpenter is now a celebrated media personality with 284,000 Facebook followers and counting. A whole cocktail of ingredients have undoubtedly helped make her success possible, but these three maxims were the key factors:

  • Social success has to be built around a great product
  • A compelling backstory is marketing gold dust (read Ana’s here)
  • Be generous – social marketers only reap what they sow

Those first two bullet points are fairly self-explanatory; the third requires a little more explanation.

Giving stuff away to get ahead

It’s the first rule of business: you speculate to accumulate.

On social media, that doesn’t necessarily mean giving away a physical product or investing in advertising – it means giving away knowledge.

That’s how Ana White made her name; by teaching the world the tricks of the carpentry trade through regularly posting how to guides on her social media channels.

Every good business possesses value in the form of the knowledge it holds, and you may well think that in itself demands a certain level of respect. But social media users will only begin to recognise that knowledge when they can access and use it for themselves. By generously opening up your knowledge to the public you can greatly enhance your brand’s reputation and social visibility.

Think about the knowledge your experts have to share, and get it out there on social media for all to see – write actionable posts, use images where you can, and by all means give the content a running start by sponsoring your posts.

Traditional ads tell the audience that your brand exists. Useful content tells them why.

Two bonus social media tips for small businesses

Specialise – most SMEs don’t have the staffing capacity to excel on more than one or two social platforms. Maintain a healthy crop of social accounts, but pay special attention to the platform best suited to your business and its goals. When deciding which channel to focus on, measure up the user demographics, content formats and costs associated with each platform.

Get the whole team involved – motivate your staff to help out with your social media efforts. A bottle of champagne goes to the employee who invites the greatest number of friends to follow your account!