Patience is a virtue..but business rarely has that virtue. Especially small businesses whose OTHER virtue is flexibility and the ability to be dynamic. Its that willingness to be dynamic that makes social media such a great fit for small businesses. Alternately, because social media is perceived as “free” many companies jump in without a strategy. Whether you are an existing business or a new business, planting the social media tree takes time, care and patience.

Since so many are starting the year off right with a desire to implement social media in 2011, I thought now would be a good time to review what planting the tree of social media can look like. Here are my recommendations on what to do before you get started and then what to do the first three months.

Plant the seeds in soil that will allow it to grow:

What to do BEFORE you start your social media program

Get your garden in order:

Make sure your website is up to date. If your thinking of doing a web redesign, now’s the time to do it. While your at it, consider a WordPress site, there are many advantages including easy integration with other programs and social media platforms. Whether you have a blog or not, WordPress is a great way to kick-off a social media campaign. You might not have considered this, but you’ll see why when you get in to it. Make sure you have at least one dedicated landing page for social media visitors that will include an email capture and links to all your social media profiles.  Finally, make sure your Google Analytics is installed. You’ll want that for later – trust me.

Consider Content: So many social media platforms do better when there is content to share. Content isn’t the only thing you’ll be distributing, but its a good place to start. This might be a blog, industry news, video, pictures, it could be anything, but definitely consider your content strategy and what you’ll use for content.

Go through your customer emails and databases. Make sure they are up to date and accurate. Its likely that at some point you’ll want to integrate your email program with your social media program, so be ready!

Define your goals. You’ll be surprised at the information you can mine from social media and there are many resources out there to do so.  You’ll get quantifiable and quantitative data. You’ll learn things. Define your audience, will you be engaging current customers in a community sense? Will be looking for new customers? Both? What will you define as success? Its likely you’ll have several goals, but this is where you Google Analytics will come in handy. There are many other ways to measure success in social media, besides conversions and traffic (which you’ll measure in Google Analytics), you’ll probably want to measure some other items. Define your KPI’s and measure from the very first day.  You’ll be quite frustrated you didn’t do this from the beginning if you skip this step.

Identify a social media team: Having at least one person be the social media liaison is a good idea. As your program grows, you may add others to the team, but if your social media program is to succeed, it needs someone to water it every single day. Choose a team with excellent judgment, a strong marketing (if not social marketing) back ground and most importantly, choose people who are “into it” and excited. These people will be the digital representatives for your company, you want them to be JAZZED. Along those lines, resist the urge to hire your Auntie’s sister’s cousin because she has a Facebook page. Social media marketing for businesses is more complex than most people give it credit for, there are nuances that you’ll want to learn and want your social media team to share with you.

Plant Your Seeds

Start building your assets and your community.

Pick your tools: Identify which social media tools work best for you. Everyone gravitates towards Facebook and Twitter because they get the most press, but they might not actually be the best tools for you. To get your wheels spinning, check out the Conversation Prism. Although social media tools are ever-changing, this is probably the single best resource to get the brain-cells thinking outside of the “Facebook/Twitter default” state of mind. If you don’t know what some of these tools are, that’s ok, dig in, have some fun. Ask your customers where they hang out in the digital world.

Water the garden: Once you know what your goals are and which social media tools are right for you, you can begin to build your assets. This isn’t a “build it and they will come” scenario. You will have to let your customers know you are there. Whether you choose to do this through promotions, email, advertising or through reaching out to them through social media, be prepared: your efforts should probably be integrated and strategic. Be prepared to spend at least 3 months listening and creating some content or sharing content on your site before you start to see results. During this first few months, you should be listening and learning. Watching what your customers or potential customers talk about. Identifying influencers and industry leaders. Spend at least 80% of your time listening during this phase.

Get out your measuring stick: Watch your garden grow, slow but sustainable growth is OK. It takes time for an oak tree to grow, as it is with your social media program. None the less, start tracking your results right away so that when you determine its time for campaign, you’ll have a baseline to measure from. There is inherent experiment in social media, so don’t be afraid to test some things out and see if you get a “blip” on your radar.

Prune & Fertilize: After building your assets and communities for 3 months, If certain social media outlets aren’t working for you ask why. If you’ve identified the reason, don’t be afraid to either eliminate it from your mix or give it a little extra push to give it the chance it needs. Alternately, now is probably the right time to develop a campaign. What your campaign will be, depends on your goals, your resources and your customers, but when you decide to develop a campaign, go back to the top and start again so that you’ll have the ability to measure success within the communities that work right for you.

Remember: a tree only grows as tall as its roots are deep. Social media is dynamic and exciting, but it takes time to grow and mature.

I’d love to hear from you on where you are in your program and if you skipped any of these steps and why!