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updated: 6/23/2014 6:12 AM

Social media can help level business playing field

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Sue Kirchner believes small businesses can level the playing field that the big guys dominate, but time and effort will be needed.

So will some social media expertise, she says.

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"Small businesses need social media," said Kirchner, president of Brand Strong Marketing Inc., Palatine. "They need to market their company, to be noticed online. They need a web presence, not just a website."

Social media isn't a selling channel, Kirchner says; instead, it's a place to build relationships that can lead to sales.

That's why presence matters. "If you want clients (and prospects) to find you, you must have a presence on the web that tells your story," Kirchner says. That presence, she maintains, comes via social media -- which, in Kirchner's storytelling sense, are akin to mini websites.

Kirchner is a believer that social media -- a process most everyone talks about but few are comfortable implementing -- can make a difference. She has some suggestions.

"You want to spend your social media time where your customers are," Kirchner says. If, for example, you have a business page on Facebook but your customers are using SlideShare (a LinkedIn unit that allows you to share content) or Pinterest, you may need to rethink your social media presence.

Finding where your customers congregate on social media is a process similar to researching marketplace needs. Survey Monkey may be the tool that gets information, Kirchner says. So, she adds, might a cup of coffee with a customer or two. "Ask them 'What's up?'" Kirchner says. "Ask what projects they're working on, what's happening in their business or industry."

Assess the information you gain and you'll be able to develop a profile of your customers that includes their social media preferences.

Take a similar approach on the web, where it's easier to reach a greater number of people. "Search for conversations online," Kirchner says. "Look for LinkedIn groups that are interested in your topics.

"Find a logistics conversation (if that's your focus) and join the group," Kirchner says. "Find a marketing conversation that fits you. Join the group.

"Target one or two groups on LinkedIn and spend 20 minutes a week getting into conversations, getting your name in front of people."

Another Kirchner option: Your blog.

A blog, Kirchner says, "is a forum to share your thought leadership, especially in B2B sectors. Use your blog for a case story. Get your name, or your business' name, connected positively with business issues and ideas." Once a week is a good blog frequency, Kirchner says; twice a month works if time gets squeezed

Blog content matters, especially because "Google has changed its search algorithms," Kirchner says. "Content is key."

Three hundred to 500 words is a good blog length, according to Kirchner. Of course, you'll want someone to read your blog thoughts. "You'll spend 20 percent of your time writing the blog, 80 percent promoting the post," Kirchner says.

• 2014 Kendall Communications, Inc. Follow Jim Kendall on LinkedIn and Twitter, and at Kendall Communications on Facebook. Write him at Jim@kendallcom.com.

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