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Social media—such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others—serve businesses best in two broad areas: in public relations (PR) (by building and reinforcing awareness) and in advertising (by showcasing targeted paid ads). And the platforms have carved out a comfortable niche for small businesses looking for either service. Or both.

If you use social media mainly for the PR value, you might post pictures of your facilities, products or people; you might tease a promotion or sale; you might just use it to get your business name out in front of eyeballs and align your business with the community. Maintaining a social media presence for PR purposes is either free or highly affordable—but doing so requires discipline and attention. Someone has to research, write and manage an ongoing, regular content stream.

If you buy social media ads, you do it for the same reasons you buy ads in any other medium: to generate leads—and, hopefully, sales. Ads in social media can be an important element in your overall direct marketing mix, which can also include email marketing, direct mail, telemarketing and other channels. Producing and posting the ad is relatively easy but involves some capital expense.

Although advertising and PR are wholly separate activities, with separate goals and operating assumptions, they work well together on social media. It’s not an either/or proposition. Here are some ways to get the most out your social media presence without spending extra capital on paid ads:

Engage with readers: If you’re not sure what kinds of content your readers prefer, ask them. In both the retail and B2B spaces, clients and prospects respond well when asked for their opinion. What topics do they find interesting? How can you structure your media posts in a way that help clients and prospects most? One way to collect this information: Do a poll and announce the top winners. Or just encourage them to communicate with you directly. Consider adding a soft deadline or a premium to juice response. A dedicated URL or phone number can help you segregate those responses from your normal traffic. Those responses can build your contact list. If you cast the widest possible net by targeting your post broadly, you can raise awareness among prospects who hadn’t even heard of your business before—and cement existing client/customer relationships.

Leverage the medium’s immediacy: Host a live seminar or Q&A and promote it in advance. Encourage users to submit questions before or during your event. Choose topics that users find interesting, timely and related to your business. Such as: What items will be available at the reduced price for your upcoming sale? How is your business responding as the nation emerges from lockdown? How (and for whom) did you develop the most recent addition to your product or service line? What are some of the hidden features of your best-selling product or service? During the event, be prepared with questions of your own. These can stimulate other questions from attendees if there’s a lull. You can use data gleaned from the event as the basis for future posts. You can quote noteworthy comments in other marketing channels. You may also be able to leverage attendee contact information for use in your next direct email marketing.

Think in narrative terms: Even when consuming commercial content, people find narratives more compelling than simple declaratives. If you want your target audience to buy your product or service, you can generate better response by framing a social media post as a story than by simply asking for the order. This is one of the fundamental ways in which PR differs in execution from advertising. Structure your narrative posts to answer questions like: How can it improve the prospect’s life? What benefits do regular users get? Instead of declaring your product offers the following list of benefits (as you’d do in an ad), you can illustrate how specific customers derived added value from those same benefits. Make your pitch in terms that are experiential and person-focused, not product-focused.

Always include a call to action (CTA): Whether you’re running a paid ad or a social media post, it should always contain a CTA hyperlink or tap to call phone number. Including a CTA in an ad is easy: Just spell out exactly what you want the reader to do in the simplest possible terms: Learn more. Buy now. Register. Visit our website. Call for a free consultation. Visit our online store. View our new selection.

For a media post more focused on awareness than action, a CTA can be more subtle but should still answer the same basic question: What do you want the reader to do? Just remember to frame it in more narrative terms: “If you want to achieve results like Customers A, B and C, contact our sales specialists.” Or “I’m happy to explore ways we can work together,” etc.

By structuring your posts strategically, with a clear intent to build and maintain your base of followers, you can make social media presence work harder and deliver better results without spending significantly on paid ads. For more insights on getting the most performance for your money, contact our small business financing experts at 1-855-WHY-PANGO (1-855-949-7264).