6 steps to build your social media audience

By Paula Wethington

The first – and sometimes only – task  people think of when it comes to running social media accounts is posting content.

But that’s only one piece. The real work happens in making sure that content is seen by the people you want to reach! And for that, you need to build an audience.

The bottom line is: Social media requires a comprehensive strategy for best results.

Here are six steps I recommend for building an audience, listed in a sequence in which they will work most effectively.

Building the Social Audience infographic

This is an infographic I designed with reminders you can pin or download.

And here is the discussion of those steps:

Define your audience

Who are you writing for?

In the marketing world, this question and the answer is called building a persona or avatar. You can research this in a number of ways that include collecting U.S. Census data on a particular city, hosting focus groups and pulling up audience demographics  via the Facebook ad manager dashboard.

Don’t ignore it, or you won’t have a direction to aim toward.

Here is a case study: When I was a personal finance blogger (I have a page on this site about the Monroe on a Budget project), I didn’t tackle every possible money topic.  Instead, I wrote for families who lived in southeast Michigan who were middle to low income; and as a result, living paycheck to paycheck more frequently than they would like. I thought their concerns and questions were overlooked by most national personal finance articles.

The recession hit shortly after I started that project. The demographic I had chosen as a niche audience was affected seriously. Any helpful content in an accessible format was of high interest. That specific combination of time / place / circumstances gave me plenty of angles to consider, research and discuss.

My question before writing anything for that project was always “Does this apply to my audience?”

As a result, it was a hugely successful site in terms of page views.

Create and curate content for that audience

You have messages you’d like to get out on specific dates or times. But you’ll need to find more content to choose from than just what you want to say.

Here’s a case study: One of the organizations I belong to is my high school music alumni foundation.

We host a hall of fame awards banquet on an every other year schedule. That event gives us the following discussion points: how to nominate someone, who will be honored, how to get dinner tickets, photos from the event, who made donations and where the money goes. The annual marching band alumni night that we help promote for the high school also provides these discussion points: announcing the date, photos and videos from rehearsal, photos and videos from the event.

We clearly needed something to talk about off season. We wanted our page to bubble up in the news feed from time to time, so that our school’s alumni will be more likely to see and remember announcements of our events.

The consensus was to look for content from other pages and sites to include on our Facebook page. Curation is the social media phrase that applies to this concept. To give a direction of where to look and what to post, our alumni board decided that the theme would be “music in our schools.”

An obvious choice was photos, videos and announcements about our school district’s music department. For example, a “share” that did very well was a video clip of the marching band at an away football game that a newspaper photographer posted on her journalist page. We’ve also decided to post concert announcements from nearby schools and the local college; and also share funny memes about music that we found on other Facebook fan pages.

Are our Facebook page fan counts going up? No, but the engagement and reach to actual people is noticeably higher with the use of curation. And that’s a huge boost to our visibility as compared to two years ago. It’s working.

Research the best timing for that network

I scoffed at digital content timing when I was a personal finance blogger. Reason: I didn’t want to fret about deadlines as I must do on print media assignments. Digital media to me meant 24/7, freeflow posting whenever content was ready.

But I have since learned some content CAN and should be scheduled. Facebook in particular is very sensitive to timing. I have noticed even a half an hour’s difference on timing can be noticed in the reach count on our newspaper’s account.

How do you determine the best timing when you are growing a page, or have inherited an existing page where you don’t yet have a feel for the audience? Here are some suggestions:

  • Review three or four charts that can be found via Internet search (I have some  pinned on Pinterest) that show best timing / worst timing on social networks.
  • Look over the Facebook page insights section of your pages to find the chart that shows what times your audience is online. Don’t schedule new content when you know the audience isn’t as likely to see it. It’s just not going to work.
  • Run your pages through the free Likealyzer tool to get more specific analytics on Facebook timing.

Another resource is using a social media management tool such as Hootsuite that can suggest posting times. Just be sure to review the results in case you want to override the automation – a particular topic might be seen as too late for the slot Hootsuite picked.

Now that you understand the news cycle so to speak on your social accounts, designate which time slots are your “prime time slots” for each day of the week on your active pages. Schedule content that is most likely to get likes, comments or shares for those times.

Bonus timing trick: Do you manage more than one social media account where the audience and content choices overlap? Time the posts with similar keywords fairly close together. To explain: I’ve noticed my reporter page on Facebook gets higher reach when I post a story on it about 15 minutes after that same story goes live on the newsroom’s main Facebook page.

Participate in the social community

Content curation is the perfect prelude to participating in the social community. Here’s why: it forces you to accept the fact that you are not the only voice that deserves to be heard.

The detail that makes social media unique among communication genres is that it is  a conversation (two way) rather than broadcasting (one way). Your friends, fans, competitors and yes, even trolls, will give feedback through likes, reactions, shares and comments.

How and when you reply to the community members indicates that the social media account is run by a real person or a team of real people. This interaction between the business, organization or brand and their fans is called “community engagement” or “community management.”

This does not mean every consumer or business complaint needs to be handled publicly on Facebook. Encourage people to use private channels to relay specific concerns or issues to you.

But as you watch the conversations and trends, community management can help you fine-tune the content and timing choices you made at an earlier step.

Apply free / organic growth strategies

One of the most common tactics when launching a new Facebook page is to send invites to your friends.

This is a start, but will get you only so far. I’ve seen numerous pages launched by friends, family and co-workers that have stalled out at 250 fans or less. Two pages that I can think of from that list never hit 25!

Why is that? One reason is you won’t have a large enough pool of people to work with among your friends. The Pew Research Center has reported that half of all Facebook members have less than 200 fans. Then consider the fact your Facebook friends may have very different interests. Some might live in in another state; even another country.

Twitter has a similar challenge in that the average number of followers per account, according to a blogger whose topics includes collecting Twitter statistics, is only 208.

How do you get complete strangers interested in what you have to say, enough to the point that they also will “like” or follow your social media account and push your fan counts past 200?

This is why social media strategy needs to be understood in a building block format. Go back to the first step in which you defined your audience. Provide content those people would be interested in. Post it at the times when they are most likely to see it. Let them see there’s a real person running the account.

Now we are going to grow a social media audience beyond your initial reach with the following tactics:

  • Be consistent in screen name and profile photo choices along with choosing similar cover art for each social network you participate in. This approach, which is one of the first steps in branding a social media presence, will help people recognize you across the Internet.
  • Follow new people every week on Twitter. I’ve seen recommendations of anywhere of following 10 to 50 new accounts a day. You want slow and steady progress. Don’t try to add too many all too fast, or Twitter might temporarily lock the account. And yes, I saw that happen once on a friend’s account! This was handled quickly with a password reset, but oops!
  • To find new people, look over the active accounts you are following. Which accounts are they following, or are followed by, that are active and on your topic or interests?
  • Remember that your Twitter follow is more likely to be noticed when someone has only 500 follows or less as compared to someone who has 5,000 or more follows.
  • Unfollow inactive accounts after 30 days. This makes room in your Twitter limits for new accounts. As your list evolves, you are also teaching Twitter who and what you are interested in.
  • Learn how to find an account’s “Twitter lists,” which is a substream of Twitter accounts. Some are automatically created from hashtags and therefore full of spam or inactive accounts; but others will be a gold mine as you find people you could also follow.
  • Build your own Twitter lists. People who are placed on public lists will get a notification – it’s a great way to let them know you exist. The private lists are for your viewing only – it’s a great way to keep a closer watch on the competition.
  • Have your Facebook page follow other pages that are related by niche or community. Page follows are not as valuable to some social media managers as profile follows, but there is a valid reason. Pages don’t often interact with each other. Those inactive likes might skew analytics and the community engagement rate. If you seek out pages that post content you can like, share, tag and comment on as a friendly page, that’s helping to build community in both directions. Those page owners might follow you back, and some of their fans will too.
  • Review the analytics on posts you made on Facebook. Did you notice that there are people who have liked that post but have not yet liked that page? Send them a page invite. Here’s a how-to on that very successful and FREE strategy.
  • Page invites and follows are like saying “hello” to new people at a cocktail party. So while you are doing that, consider whether there is a photo, link, post or event that you can “pin” to the top of your Facebook and Twitter profiles to provide more information about who you are or a project you are working on. That pinned content is like giving someone your business card at a cocktail party after saying hello.
  • Finding your target audience on Instagram can be a challenge with so many people setting their accounts to private. On those accounts, you can’t see who they are following or are followed by. But I’ve found an Instagram audience grows organically with a clever and liberal use of hashtags. I brainstorm or look for three to five relevant hashtags on each Instagram post; other people add twice that number to their images.

Consider paid ads on the social network

There’s nothing wrong with using sponsored posts across social media. After all, this advertising support helps create and build the networks you are relying on  for marketing strategies.

But don’t waste your money! Study up on the best practices for paid content on that particular network.

Then go back to the first step of defining your audience. Decide who you can target  among that group, and what information or offer would get their interest. And consider when THAT group of people be MOST interested in seeing THAT promotion?

Your promoted content doesn’t have to be selling a huge purchase; and that  might come across as too pushy anyway. A perfectly valid use of paid social is a free download in exchange for an email address you can send information to later. Another practical use is to promote an event you are hosting in real life.

Or consider this example that would be of interest to a news organization: You just put a lot of time and resources into a special report. On your website, you have embedded referral links to background articles, photo galleries, video clips, a call to action, etc. so that you can easily pick up maybe five or ten page views and maybe even a paid customer on a typical read.

You just need to pull in that first view.

Answer: you can push that special project to a bigger audience via paid social.

Wow! I felt like I just wrote a white paper when I was aiming for a tipsheet. If you’d like to see other social media strategies and tips that I’ve collected, check out my Twitter feed at @WethingtonPaula and my Digital Media board on Pinterest.

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