One of the great things about starting a business today is the potential to get your ideas heard no matter what your budget. With a bit of creativity and a lot of hard work, tools such as social media can help even the tiniest of businesses to reach huge audiences.
Of course, this isn’t easy to do. The downside to all these opportunities is there’s now a lot of noise. If you want to make yourself heard, you need to stand out from the crowd and understand the rules of engagement in this brave new world.
So how can you create a stellar online presence that helps you achieve your goals – even on a shoestring budget? Here are 16 tips to help you on your way.
1. A place to call home
Let’s be honest, it’s possible to use social media tools (such as a Facebook business or Google+ page) as a basic website. They’re free, you can update them with regular fresh content, use them to connect with potential customers…they tick a lot of the boxes for a good freelancer’s site.
But while this can be a good starting point, there’s really no reason not to have your own website or blog these days. There are a number of platforms you can use to build a decent site for little or no money, even if you don’t know how to code, using pre-designed templates and simple editing tools.
As well as appearing more professional, your own site gives you freedom and flexibility in terms of layout, content and design and a lot more scope to give people an insight into who you are and what you do. It’s your own space which you can put your own stamp on.
It also gives you scope to earn additional income in the future should your blog become popular (eg through sponsorship or selling your own products). Indeed, many freelance blogs have become successful businesses in their own right.
2. Connect with people where they are
Of course, a great web presence isn’t just about having your own website. To raise awareness of your business, you also need to connect with people where they already are on the web. This is where social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ come into play.
As well as building relationships and making new connections, you can also use social media to drive people back to your own website or blog – for example, by letting people know when you’ve published a new post.
3. Quality over quantity
So how do you know which networks you should be on? A good starting point is to experiment with different platforms and see what works and what doesn’t (there are tools you can use to monitor your impact on social media – see point 13 below).
But remember, to figure out what ‘works’, you need to think about what success really means to you and your business. Beware of so-called ‘vanity metrics’. 500 engaged Twitter followers who generate referrals and meaningful connections are worth far more than 50,000 people who are indifferent to you and your business. Figure out your goals and prioritise the platforms and approaches that will help you get there.
It’s better to have a more considered, regularly updated presence on a few sites than to spread yourself too thin.
4. Be strategic
Likewise, think about how to use different platforms to complement each other and strengthen your overall digital presence, rather than jumping on the shiny new thing for the sake of it.
For example, here’s how American fashion design house Kate Spade New York uses different digital platforms in different ways, (extract taken from Blog Inc, by Joy Cho, founder of the award-winning Oh Joy! blog):
“Facebook has been a great way to interact with our customers, because we receive so many product and shopping-related questions there. We use Twitter as the voice of the ‘kate spade new york girl.’ The tweets tell us about what she’s doing, wearing, and the events she’s attending.”
The company also has two blogs to bring the brand to life through visuals. It uses Tumblr as “a living, constantly refreshing inspiration board and activity log”, and its ‘Behind the Curtain’ blog for more in-depth posts, including profiles and a regular ‘how she wore it’ feature.
Once you’ve got your website and social media channels set up, cross-link across different platforms where you can (without going overboard) – for example, if you’ve just posted some photos on Facebook, you could tell your Twitter followers to check them out; add a link to your website on your LinkedIn profile, and add social sharing buttons to your blog to make it easy for people to share your posts on social media (this is built into most blogging platforms).
6. Create a memorable name
This is particularly important on the web; as this article on creating your personal brand in Inc puts it: “You want people to find you, not somebody who’s got the same name as you.”
As a sole trader, you can either trade under your own name or create a brand new name for your business (having first made sure it’s available to use). If you’re a freelancer with a relatively common name, one simple option could be to merge your name with your creative field – eg John Smith design.
7. Use strong imagery
While each platform is slightly different, generally speaking posts containing images often generate higher levels of engagement on social media (for example, read this on how Facebook ranks different types of posts).
When it comes to your own website or blog, choosing a standard size for your images and resizing each one accordingly will help to make your site look a lot cleaner and more professional, as will ensuring any images you use look crisp and sharp.
However, keep in mind the balance between quality/file size and how long it takes for your web pages to load. Here are some tips on optimising your web images from TechRepublic.
Speaking of imagery…
8. Respect copyright
Sounds obvious, right? Yet you’d be surprised how many people think it’s OK to do a Google image search and grab any picture for their blog post. Thankfully, there are now some great resources where you can find free high res images for your website or blog, such as Unsplash, MorgueFile and Creative Commons images on Flickr – however always check individual licence terms.
The same applies for stuff you write and share. Always attribute your sources and give credit where it’s due.
9. Be friendly
As I mentioned in this post on how to increase engagement on your Facebook page, social media has changed the game as far as marketing is concerned. The more we have the tools to tell our own stories in our own way, the less tolerant we’re becoming towards intrusive forms of marketing – particularly on the web.
So don’t see social media as a sales channel, but as a place to start conversations and build relationships. For this reason, the biggest winners are those who talk to people like humans, in a friendly, conversational and genuine way.
10. Share, don’t sell
Nobody wants to be sold to. We want to learn, be inspired and find out how to do things ourselves.
So whether you’re posting on your own blog or on social media, think about creating and sharing useful content – tips, news, opinion etc – and keep promotional posts to a minimum. This way, you’ll not only get people to click on your posts in the first place, you’ll establish yourself as an expert so that if/when that reader needs someone with your skillset, you’ll be top of their mind.
Meanwhile your blog/Twitter feed/Pinterest boards will become a destination for people looking for inspiration or advice.
11. Update regularly
Whether you’re posting on social media or your own blog, sticking to a regular schedule can help to build trust and expectations. Regular fresh content can also help improve your website’s search engine rankings.
Obviously you don’t want to bombard people either. Here’s a post on how often to post social media updates from Social Media Today.
12. Search and shareability
Google is still the biggest driver of web traffic to publishers, so if you’ve got your own website or blog you should learn the basics of search engine optimisation (SEO) – that is, helping your website to rank highly in searches for relevant phrases, such as ‘web designer London’.
However, social media is playing an ever-increasing role in driving eyeballs to content so you also have to think about what motivates people to share. Really, the key to both is the same – put yourself in your readers’ shoes and do your best to create genuinely helpful and relevant content that people would actually search for or want to pass on.
But there are definitely things you can do to help things along. For starters, read this handy beginners’ guide from Google itself, which goes over the basics of SEO, and this great guide to writing popular – and shareable – headlines for Twitter, Facebook and your blog from Buffer/Fast Company.
13. Manage your online reputation
It’s also important to keep on top of what others are saying about you online. One quick and easy way to do this is to sign up for free Google Alerts for your own name and/or business name, so you’ll get an email whenever your name is mentioned on the web.
To keep an eye on social media, there are free dashboards you can download which also enable you to pre-schedule updates in advance – which can be very useful for keeping your accounts active while you’re taking a break or busy doing something else. I use TweetDeck to keep an eye on my own/clients’ Twitter accounts, and Buffer to quickly share cool stuff I find on the web.
14. Assess the performance of your website
If you have your own website or blog, Google Analytics is your new best friend. It’s a free, powerful tool that helps you monitor the performance of your website.
As well as top line figures such as the number of unique visitors and pageviews, you can see which content is the most popular, where your visitors came from (eg Google, Twitter etc), and more – all extremely valuable data to help inform and improve your digital strategy.
15. Be proactive and pay it forward
Commenting on other relevant blogs and social media posts can be another good way to get your name out there and start gaining a positive reputation in your field. Again, don’t see it as a sales pitch, but as a chance to build relationships, add value to the conversation and be genuinely helpful.
And don’t forget to ask questions/seek ideas to help you move your business forward from your own readers and followers too.
16. Keep the faith
Finally, be patient! Building a stellar online presence is hard work and takes time. Don’t lose heart if you’re not getting the results you want straight away. Use analytics to review what you’re doing and learn which platforms/posts work best for your business, and change your strategy accordingly.
And don’t lose sight of why you’re doing this. Remember, the aim of the game is to build a successful business and lead the life you want to lead, not hit an arbitrary number of followers. Good luck!