Social media marketing can seem overwhelming to business owners and marketers for good reason. There are many social media networks to consider for promoting your brand, products and services. Each network is unique and has different user demographics, but one element is the same for each and every social site:  they take time.

Where do you start when you’re told you should be on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram… and before the dust settles, find out you’re not on Snapchat, YouTube, Meerkat, Tumblr or Quora!

Don’t panic. And don’t sign up for every social site out there.  Before you invest time, energy and budget into social networks, you should determine which ones are most relevant to your business. Here’s some help on how to choose which social networks will actually work best for your business.

1. Ask: Where is My Audience Actively Participating?

You want to be where your customers are, and even more importantly you want to be where they are engaged.  It’s equivalent to being seated at the “right table” at the party.  You’ll have opportunities to listen, ask questions, engage in conversation and share opinion because they are present.

Look at a social site’s number of users, but dig deeper.  Look at demographics related to age, income, relationships, and interests.  Then get some input from actual customers.  Ask them about social networks and which ones they prefer personally.  You’ll have a much clearer target downrange.

2. Look at What Your Audience is Sharing – and WhereSocial Sharing Counts

By monitoring social sharing in your networks and from your blog, you can determine what topics and content types best appeal to your audience.  But you can also find where your customers and fans are most active in sharing content that interests them.   In the example above, this particular technology company would likely benefit most from an effort to engage users on Twitter and Google+ where they already have naturally occurring traction.

3.  Find an Industry or Interest-Specific Niche Site

A company that sells wedding-related products and services would be well served by interacting on sites like WeddingWire.  But a company that sells surfboards and skate boards would not find the same return on their investment in a wedding-focused niche site.   Your particular interest or industry may have a niche social site that has a highly-concentrated user base that has already demonstrated interest in your field.

4. Get Social Intel – Yours & Your Competitors

Most marketing automation software includes listening tools and competitive ranking reports.  You can also use tools like Buzzsumo or NinjaOutreach to gather social intel like which networks your competitor’s content is being shared on.  A network that is seeing a lot of sharing for your competitor’s content is likely to be a good fit for you as well.

The same listening tools will also allow you to do keyword research to see where a subject is shared most.  This should help you see what networks have an audience interested in your content.  You can also note what form of content they prefer to share – photos, videos, checklists, infographics, or others.

5. Put a Specific Plan in Place

Before jumping into social media channels, develop a clear plan with goals and strategies you can implement.  Don’t get swallowed up in the “I have to post to everyone today” frenzy and lose traction in other important business activities.  Identify what your goals are for each social media platform you choose.  Are you growing an audience first?  Are you reaching a certain number of shares?  Click-throughs?  Signups?

If you have a plan with specific goals, you will stay more focused in your efforts and be more strategic in your content, pacing and measurements.

6. Don’t Give up Too Soon

Social media takes time.  It takes a sustained investment to begin to produce results.  Focus on building relationships, helping others and establishing brand presence and expertise.  Don’t try to make quick sales… that’s not very sociable.  If you take the long-view approach, you will achieve results over time.

Whatever your social media presence now, take the time to do a little research into which social channels work best for your customers, your industry and even your competitors.  Once you’re armed with some data on where the best audiences for you are active, you can determine which channels to add, update or delete from your social media marketing.
First focus on growing and actively engaging your audience.  Your content and sharing will increase traffic back to your site over time, building search value, traffic and leads.

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Cindy is the founding President at 17blue Digital Agency. She's passionate about helping businesses create traction for their brands, reach their goals and make a difference in their communities.