Newsmakers in social marketing tend to be large companies, with big ad spends. Small and midsize companies can sometimes feel as though they're at a relative disadvantage, but the technologies that power big organizations' social efforts are becoming more affordable for smaller businesses.

Ed Abrams, vice-president of marketing for IBM's small and midsize business unit, explains the changing landscape, and offers tips for SMBs on social strategy, content marketing, and running a social business.

The First Step: Decide What You're Trying to Do With Social

"Sit down and think about what it is that you're trying to accomplish with social media and social business," says Abrams. "Are you trying to build a brand image? Drive sales and revenue?

"Many businesses, SMBs and large businesses alike, simply say 'we need to be there because everyone is there.' You need to set an objective."

The Chicken and the Egg: Content and Social Strategy

Many SMBs have various social platforms in use before they try to plan their larger content strategy, but social and content strategy should be hatched at the same time.

"Businesses need to do two things simultaneously," says Abrams: "create a purpose-built social infrastructure, and establish content and voice. What do you stand for? What value do you add?"

SMBs also need to pare down any multiple presences on social networks, and consolidate accounts so that there's a recognizable, official page or profile on the networks they select.

Once SMBs know where they want to be online, they should consider how they can help their audience, and plan content that people will appreciate and share.

"Voice" plays a key role in social marketing, as well. "No one wants to talk to someone who doesn't have a point of view that's important to them," Adams affirms.

Content Strategy Is Like a First Date

SMBs should establish their content strategy before launching a social marketing campaign. "It's like going on a first date," explains Abrams. "You always want to prepare some pieces to have a good conversation, so you start off on the right foot. You don't want those awkward moments of silence."

SMBs need to establish their point of view, then create some content before going out into the marketplace and engaging.

"What if someone asks you for more information about a topic you've posted about, and you don't have it? Social is very real-time, so building out content and the capability to consistently deliver content into the marketplace is critical," Adams says.

Remember to Listen

Once you know what you want to say, remember to listen, and see how your audience responds. "Take a very active role in social listening," recommends Abrams. "Just like any good conversation, you need to listen more than you speak. If you don't keep track of marketplace is saying about your brand and your industry, you'll find yourself out of touch."

Start with basic listening tools that offer data analytics capabilities. There's no shortage of options.

Abrams recommends asking your IT business partner for recommendations: "The company you're already using to build out your IT solutions can help you to determine which are the most relevant and appropriate tools for you, based on your current infrastructure and the market that you're in."

Monitor, but Don't Be Creepy

One of the best ways that SMBs can succeed at social listening is to make someone in their organization responsible for conversation management.

"You need to have someone whose job it is to be out there looking at the conversations and the information that's out in the social environment," urges Abrams. "What are they seeing in terms of comments on Facebook posts and tweets about their brand? What are the key topics on the blog that seem to get better readership and better distribution? Understand these trends, then use them to help shape the content that your business brings out into the conversation."

He cites outdoor equipment company Moosejaw Mountain's social presence as an example for SMBs to follow: "Moosejaw starts a conversation around how and where their equipment is used, but then they turn the conversation over to their audience, asking them about their little Moosejaw flag—included in every order the company ships—and they'll see where the flag is showing up in the world."

Seeing how and where customers are using products, Moosejaw is able to adjust their content, their social strategy, and their value proposition—all without creeping out their audience.

Consider the Cloud

"Organizations with fewer than 1,000 employees can still have very large technology needs," Abrams observes. Instead of purchasing the hardware and software necessary to store large amounts of data for occasional access, SMBs can save sizable amounts of money by purchasing access to the same data stored on the cloud, and pay only when they need to access it.

SMBs should use cloud services "so they don't have to purchase huge amounts of processing power that they only need on a sporadic basis. Now they can go to the cloud and use it when they need it," he explains.

Don't Be Afraid of Big Data

Small business owners can find themselves drowning in data, but so do larger organizations, says Abrams.

"Companies like IBM are also overwhelmed by the amount of data and information that's out there. That's why big data analytics is so important. A lot of times, SMBs will see the term 'big Data analytics' and...think that's only for the largest of companies."

SMBs need to make sense of this vast ocean of unstructured data in order to effectively plan their marketing and provide the best possible customer experience.

Brass Tacks: How Much Is All This Going to Cost?

Abrams generally recommends that SMBs spend 30% of their marketing resources on social media and social strategy: "The only real cost to this type of marketing is the content development: The media is still low-cost/no-cost."

Time, however, is a different matter. Abrams tells companies, "70-80% of the time you spend on marketing needs to be spent on social, social business, social strategies, and things like that."

Ideally, SMBs should have at least one person devoted to social media and social business. "The most successful businesses," Abrams observes, "have someone on the marketing side who's devoted to social business and social business strategies, and someone on the sales side who's a great advocate and champion of social tools to engage customers."

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The bottom line? SMBs have more tools at their disposal than ever before. Set your goals, develop your strategy, and get social!

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image of Kerry O'Shea Gorgone

Kerry O'Shea Gorgone is senior editor and writer at Appfire. She co-hosts The Backpack Show LIVE with Chris Brogan and Punch Out With Katie and Kerry, and serves as Consigliere and Showrunner for Chris Brogan Media. Once upon a time, Kerry was a lawyer (number one in her class at Suffolk University Law School).