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Although social media is a relatively new marketing channel, there is fairly strong consensus that it can help with business growth.

According to a recent survey of some 3,000 consumers conducted by Bain & Company, customers who interact with brands via social media spend 20-40% more money with those companies than other customers. In addition, customers who engage with brands over social media show a deeper loyalty to those companies.

What few people realize, though, is that you can actually drive direct sales from social media—provided you have the right strategy in place. This article, then, is an overview of how to deploy a social media sales mechanism in your company.

In practical terms, using social media to drive direct sales for your product or service can be broken down into two areas of focus:

  1. Social broadcasting—for attraction, retention, up-selling, and cross-selling.
  2. Social listening—to identify new sales opportunities.

Social Broadcasting

Many people get the wrong idea when they hear the word "broadcast," assuming it to be a technique used by old-school, "interruptive" marketers.

The truth is that consumers crave valuable information. By developing a social presence, igniting conversations with your (suitably) frequent broadcasts, and sharing the useful content that you are producing, you are making the most of the direct sales opportunities that social media presents.

You can earn the trust and attention of current and new customers, thus ensuring that any who already buy will continue to do so, and any who don't buy will consider becoming a patron. Similarly, you have the opportunity to upsell and cross-sell (in a tasteful manner) to your social media audience by highlighting your latest offers and discussing other products and services that your company offers.

Step 1. Benchmark

The process starts with benchmarking. For some companies, this step may well be a short one particularly, if you have little or no social presence to speak of yet. This starting point will help you create specific social media objectives, but make sure to match them to the internal business goals you already have in place.

For example, if you want to attract more women to your brand, target your social media efforts with women in mind. It may sound obvious, but a conscious awareness of this objective can help you make smarter decisions later down the line—regarding the type of broadcasts you make, what time you make them, how you structure your content, and so on.

Set specific milestones for your social broadcast efforts, but keep them flexible to allow for positive changes during implementation (remember that you are dealing with people, so projections are unlikely to be completely accurate).

Step 2. Establish your presence

Selecting social networks and establishing your presence on those networks is crucial, of course, and will depend on your target audience. In short, you need to understand where members of your target market are having conversations online and you'll need to make sure that you are there too.

A fairly crude example of that notion is that Facebook is appropriate largely for B2C marketers and LinkedIn is for B2B marketers.

Obviously, there are more granular considerations, but the point is that social media is in constant flux, and new platforms are being introduced fairly often, so you need to think quality, not quantity: You want excellent content that engages your readers on a few platforms, rather than lackluster content on many.

By focusing your money and efforts on just a few networks, you can more often than not garner far superior results than spreading your resources too thinly by trying to be present everywhere.

Step 3. Automate effectively

You'll need to balance your social media strategy to develop the right mix of broadcast and interaction. Each has its advantages, but they also work together as part of a comprehensive social media approach that gives you the best of both worlds.

The best way to maintain a balance is to always keep your customer's needs and wants in the front of your mind.

Automate broadcasts as a stratagem for targeting users who are perhaps online outside of hours that you normally interact socially. Social media automation can also help to deliver consistency, enabling you to "set and forget" to some extent.

Clearly, brands that do nothing but broadcast on social media quickly become outcasts, since platforms like Facebook are hubs of conversation. Similarly, although Twitter can often be more of a stream of broadcasts, businesses that take their followers for granted and dump bulk automated broadcasts frequently throughout the day will quickly find themselves losing attention.

Also, create some basic social media guidelines for your staff to follow. That way, everyone knows their boundaries, and you'll avoid issues such as message duplication or content finding its way into your social channels that doesn't reflect the voice of your brand.

Focus and monitor the performance of broadcasts, paying close attention to what impact they have on actual sales. For example, you might do trials of the following types of broadcast on specific products or for the promotion of specific offers, then determine the impact on revenue:

  • Tweeting a link to a blog post that shows how product X solves problem Y
  • Adding an exclusive coupon code to your Facebook wall
  • Sharing on LinkedIn the special end-of-quarter offer your sales team is running for clients who want to pay annually for service Z

Social Listening

A wealth of purchase-related data (both pre-purchase and post-purchase) shared every day across the main social media platforms. You can monitor and proactively capitalize on those opportunities.

You might answer questions, help to solve problems by suggesting solutions, allay potential concerns, or even just share a link to a blog post that offers more information on a particular topic that the prospect has expressed an interest in.

An abundance of social media listening and monitoring tools is available to help you drive sales from social media. Each piece of software has its benefits and drawbacks, and which you use ultimately comes down to your budget, your intentions, and your comfort level with the given tool. You will be spending quite a bit of time in front of the tool's dashboard, so you'll want to know that you can get the most out of it.

The key areas to focus your social listening around are these:

  • Brand monitoring. Look for mentions of your brand (positive and negative) and aim to enhance the commenter's interaction with your organization.
  • Influencer identification and tracking. Direct sales via social media doesn't have to mean immediate sales; you can also look to identify the key influencers within a niche or market segment and develop a relationship with them, because they likely have clout with many hundreds or even thousands of potential purchasers. Imagine being able to deliver excellent customer service to an influential blogger who in turn writes a post about how great your company is.
  • Trigger-phrase plus topic-area monitoring. This is a good way to develop "top of funnel" prospects who are perhaps recognizing they have a need or want but don't quite know what the solution is yet. Listen for these people and help them; feed them useful content with the intent of eventually, on an ever so slightly longer timeline, generating sales.
  • Listening and responding to customer service queries. This is a common application of social media, and it should not be forgotten about. We all know the importance of resolving customer gripes made via a social network (before the complaint goes viral), but there are also very often sales opportunities in customer service queries; listen out for them and be ready with an up-sell or cross-sell proposition.

The Opportunities Are Real-Time

According to a study published by the Harvard Business Review, businesses are almost seven times more likely to interact with key decision makers at companies if they respond to queries in less than an hour, than those who take an hour or longer to do so. The study also found that only 37% of companies manage to reply to inquiries in less than one hour. Those findings are an indication of how real-time action over the right platform can increase sales significantly.

This study related to inquiries directly made to the company, but the figures and message behind it could just as easily be applied to social listening, because you will miss the opportunity if, for example, you are checking in or taking advantage of the opportunities only once a day.

If a prospective customer asks a question about your product to her friends, she is likely in purchasing mode; a friend can easily talk her around to a competitor's product, or a rival brand can chime in on the discussion—and you'll have lost what could have been a relatively easy sale.

A Word of Warning

You are entering a social space where some users might be unaware that their updates are publicly accessible, via social listening tools or otherwise, so you need to avoid appearing creepy and jumping in with the hard-sell if the prospect clearly isn't ready to buy.

Make the message appropriate to where prospects are in the decision-making process. To directly entice a purchaser with a coupon code might well be appropriate if he is publicly considering buying from you or a competitor. That type of thoughtful message aligns with the state of mind of the consumer and will more than likely convert into a sale.

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Are you using social media to generate direct sales? What have your experiences been? Please add your thoughts in the comments section below.

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image of David Klein
David Klein is a co-founder of Orange Line, a provider of online marketing services, including social media marketing and SEO services. Follow David on the Orange Line blog, on twitter @davidaklein, and on Google+.