Social media a big help or monumental waste of time?

Unless you live under a rock, you’re familiar with social media. Everywhere you turn, people are LinkedIn, Facebooked, Twittered and blogged. Virtually anyone involved with modern marketing will tell you it’s a must-do for business. But is it?

Clients frequently ask what they should be doing in this area and the answer is almost always the same — it depends. Like most business tools, social media requires resources, time and money. It could be a great fit for your business that’s valuable and helps you improve sales, or it could be a monumental waste of time.

You don’t have to be a social media expert to go through the process of determining whether to use it. Look at it this way: social media for business is simply a tool that needs to provide a return on your investment.

Social media is exactly what the name implies — it connects you with other people. When viewed and used as a business tool, it puts you and your company out “there” for the world to see. If done well, it can be extremely beneficial in creating top-of-mind awareness and promoting your company.

A common misconception, though, is that it’s free. Granted, joining a social media site costs nothing out-of-pocket initially. But to really work the system and make it worthwhile for a business, it can take a substantial amount of time…which, of course, translates to money.

If you’ve been thinking about it and want to decide if social media is right for you, start by doing some research to learn what’s available and how it’s done. Social media classes are advertised online and various business membership organizations periodically host social media classes. These are great places to start. Another good resource is the book Crush It by Gary Vaynerchuk. We found his system to be a bit extreme but Vaynerchuk does give some great ideas.

Then determine what you believe social media will accomplish for your business. Is the goal to build name recognition or a certain niche in the market, attract a specific demographic or increase sales? You need a clear picture of what you hope to achieve. Otherwise, you’re likely to flounder and waste time. With a clear goal, it becomes much easier for your social media program to work and ultimately achieve your objectives.

You’ll also need to decide what form(s) of social media to use. This will require some research on the different options to help you determine which ones will have the most impact. If you decide to use several forms simultaneously, you might also want to sign onto a site like Hootsuite.com or TweetDeck.com, which act as a “dashboard” to tie various media sites together. This means that something posted on one of your sites will go out to the others, which can be a huge timesaver.

Next, plan how you’ll accomplish your social media program by creating an execution plan. This should set out who will be responsible, what sites they’ll use, how they’ll manage the program, and how often they’ll post something. Keep in mind that the responsible person should have excellent communication skills. If no one in your company has the time or necessary skills, this function could be outsourced to someone outside your company. As with all marketing plans, successful results require a steady effort over a period of time. A social media campaign won’t achieve your goals if you’re constantly starting and stopping. It must be consistent to work effectively.

Finally, you should understand how you’ll get a return on your investment in time. When projecting your ROI, determine how you’ll measure it. Will it be by sales, building a mailing list, or the number of “friends” on your Facebook page who are potential customers? Determine what your time is worth and if social media the best use of it.

For instance, let’s say you plan to spend 200 hours per year on social media. If you used those same 200 hours on sales calls, would you get better results? Assign an hourly rate to your time. If you figure your time is worth $50 an hour and you spend 200 hours on social media, that equates to $10,000 worth of your time. What will you get for this investment?

Social media needs to be viewed as a tool and business expense. It can have a significantly positive impact on your business but, if not handled well, it can also waste time and resources. If you decide to use it, the key is to approach it like any other major business decision — weigh the cost, make a plan, and then effectively execute your plan.

Laddie and Judy Blaskowski are partners in BusinessTruths Consulting, Inc. and several other businesses, and authored The Step Dynamic: A Powerful Strategy for Successfully Growing Your Business. They can be reached at Judy@BusinessTruths.com.