Many small business owners I encounter are either too busy for social media, or they don’t truly understand Facebook, Foursquare, or Twitter. So they choose to delegate these tools to interns or specialists. This may not always be in the best interest of the company.

I’m not a social media expert. Far from it. I haven’t ousted any mayors yet, and probably won’t anytime soon. But I am a small business owner and entrepreneur who truly embraces the unique opportunity that social media offers. Nothing else gives me such a direct way to “talk” with my clients and community on a daily basis. And people are what brought me into business in the first place.

Over the past few years, I’ve made it a point to explore and understand the social web around me. And while I’ll be the first to admit there’s a lot left to learn, here are 6 social media strategy lessons I’ve discovered so far.

1. Your Customer Knows Best

Social media has little to do with you; it’s all about your audience, customers, or whomever you’re trying to reach. Marketing 101 says to think like your customer thinks. And the same holds true in social media. In my particular business, my clients aren’t necessarily flocking to Foursquare or augmented reality, but they are using LinkedIn and some other niche sites (in addition to Twitter and Facebook).

Not sure where your customers are on the social web? Just ask. Early on, I found myself asking clients if they were using any social networks. Most of the time, this simple question led to an interesting conversation and great insight on how I could take part and provide value. You don’t always have to be the expert — you can let your customers show you their way.

2. Social Media Isn’t Necessarily Free

Social media is attractive to small businesses because of its perceived price. You can set up a new blog, fan page, video site, and Twitter account without paying a dime. There’s no expensive software or costly media buys. However, even though there’s a low price tag to enter the game, social media is far from free. It requires time, energy, and effort. It’s a never-ending commitment to create interesting content, listen to conversations, and respond.

Instead of rushing to join any and every social media community out there, I prefer the slow and steady approach. Pick one or two communities that are important in your market. Determine your key goals and define who will be responsible for keeping activity going day in and day out. And just remember that your time is valuable. This new marketing is far from free.

3. Don’t Measure Success by Follower Counts

Starbucks has more than 1.3 million followers on Twitter. You probably don’t, and that’s OK. As a small business, you shouldn’t get caught up in the numbers game or try to keep up with the big brands. Growing your community is important, but you should be focused on who’s engaging with you and at what levels. I know it’s tempting to pay a service to deliver thousands of followers literally overnight. However, in the long run it’s more important to have a devoted, enthusiastic community. Be patient. It’s organic growth that matters. Things don’t (and won’t) happen overnight.

4. Social Media Doesn’t Equal Self-Promotion

I’ll be honest; my first experiment in social media wasn’t too successful. I spent all my time posting and tweeting about my company, our news, and services. And the process became incredibly frustrating since I saw little results for my efforts. It wasn’t until I began working with some very smart people that I realized two things:

  • I needed to show the person behind the company, and
  • I needed to focus on my customers and not my company.

I began searching the web for people looking for help and began offering advice and information. That was my “ah-ha” moment, and when social media began clicking for me.

5. Learn From the Experts

There are some great companies and brands doing great things with social media, so there’s no reason for you to reinvent the wheel. Put on your consumer hat for awhile and take note of the various social media campaigns, or just general interactions, that appeal to you. I got in the habit of bookmarking and noting particular blog posts or company responses on Facebook.

But, we can’t just be copycats. Beyond any ethical considerations, there’s an effectiveness issue. Just because something worked for one company doesn’t mean it’s going to work for your community. You’ve got to learn from the work of others while tailoring their experiences to your own particular needs, goals, and customers.

6. Get Help Without Relinquishing Your Identity

As a business owner, I know you simply can’t take care of everything. And you simply can’t be an expert in everything. You hire employees to specialize in or take care of certain areas of your business, and you contract outside help (a.k.a. outsource) other jobs as well. There’s tremendous value in hiring a social media consultant or agency to help you. You shouldn’t, however, hand over the reins entirely.

In my particular line of business, I like to be in control of establishing the relationship with my community and creating my networks. I’ve also decided I want to play a large role in defining the message and content for all our communications, as well as engage with every tweet and blog comment directly.

Small business owners will be well-served by working closely alongside their social media expert to learn about the various social platforms, communities, and protocol. By spending just a little bit of time each day with your agency manager or consultant, you can learn how to use the platforms and interact with communities. As a result, you’ll become more comfortable and proficient using these tools yourself. At the end of the day, it will result in more authentic interactions. More than anything, the key is to get in there and try. You have to start somewhere.

*Original Content written by Nellie Akalp for