Using social media to promote your student business

10 years ago, if you started a business without much cash, you'd have to do a lot of leg-work to get the word out. Cheap radio adverts and long nights of flyering were de rigeur - which didn't leave a lot of time for students to get on with their studies.

Now, though, we have social media - which means you can get your word out to thousands of people at once with a relatively small amount of effort. According to research carried out in March 2008, almost 60% of internet users had joined a social network - a figure which had doubled in just two years. And the best thing is, whatever technology is popular among you and your peers is only likely to be picked up by mainstream business a few months down the line - which means whatever you're using now is here to stay. Well done. Keep at it.

What is social media?

  • Social media can be defined as web-based media which allows its users to enter a dialogue with one another. This can be through the sharing of images or videos, sending messages to one another or simply writing articles which other users can alter or which allows others to post comments at the bottom.
  • The range of social media sites is enormously diverse and spans services such as Smarta, Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn, any sites which allow users to create and maintain a blog, and thousands more. They can be very specific - social networks designed for those in a particular industry or with a particular passion, for example - or they can be more general.
  • Social media is more democratic than the internet in general because unlike services such as search engines, where you can pay SEO experts to boost your site's ranking or buy AdWords and appear the top of search results, there's no way of buying your way to the top. If other users don't like your message, they'll make their voices heard - and there's no way of you preventing them from doing so.

Which social media services to use

  • It really depends on what you're doing. If your target market is other students, Twitter may not be entirely helpful, because students don't tend to use it. Facebook, on the other hand, is almost ubiquitous among every demographic.
  • Always have a blog. Whether you're freelancing, teaching piano or setting up a limited company, a blog adds value and gives you a chance to showcase your expertise and knowledge to prospective clients. It allows you to keep customers and prospective customers up-to-date with what's happening in the business. And, crucially, blogs are also great for SEO - keep blogging, and you'll be at the top of Google search results in no time (er, sort of). You can set up one at Blogger, Wordpress or Tumblr.
  • If you don't have a lot of cash or your web design skills aren't completely up-to-date, view your website more as a hub where all your social media services come together - include content from YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter and your blog, and you'll already have a reasonably interesting website.

How to use social media

  • You probably use social media already. Bonus. It's easy from here on out. The following points are just ways to make your use more in-depth and business-centric. But remember the appeal of social media is that it's real and personal and full of your personality - so just carry on being yourself. Don't be too worried about giving off a 'professional' image - it'll be too cold.
  • Because social media users are constantly generating new content and engaging in new conversations, it's a great way to monitor what your customers think of you. You can spot trends and get free feedback without having to spend money on expensive - and irritating - customer feedback surveys.
  • Before you jump straight in, start by doing some research. Monitor public opinion by signing up to Technorati, which monitors blogs for keywords; Google Alerts, which send you an email every time a word you've requested is used on a news site or blog; and look up keywords on Twitter Search. Set up alerts for your business' name, as well as the names of competitors and anything else you think is relevant.
  • Join the conversation only when you're sure you know what people think of your business. For instance, setting up a Twitter account will allow you to engage in direct, real-time dialogue with customers, but remember to answer people as well as promoting your product - and don't make the same mistake as furniture company Habitat, which alienated customers by engaging in some unscrupulous practices.
  • The goal is to boost your business' profile rather than engage in any direct selling, so make sure you fit in to the social network or type of media you're using. This means using the correct tone of voice, and site etiquette.
  • Remember, social media was set up to allow users to chat to each other - so a chatty, light tone rather than a pushy, marketing-led voice will engage users and endear them to your business.

Jargon buster

Apps/Applications: a 'web app' is a computer program designed to be accessed through a web browser. Social media sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn have built-in apps.

Flickr: photography-based social network which allows users to post and comment on one another's photos.

LinkedIn: business-focused social network which, like Facebook, allows users to create profiles, posting personal information including career and professional history and connect to other users.

WordPress: one of the most popular blog creation websites.

Widget: a chunk of code, usually small programs such as clocks, which can be installed into any web page.


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