It’s impossible to ignore the Internet phenomenon known as “social media” these days. A huge preponderance of commercial websites have prominently displayed links to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and sundry others. Many common gateways to this or that service or website provide the option of signing in via Facebook or other SM platforms. Hashtags, those ubiquitous little tic-tac-toe signs, are cropping up in more and more places, just begging to be found in somebody or another’s search.

Before embarking on your SM marketing campaign, there are a number of considerations to bear in mind. Perhaps the most important is that word “social.”

It’s not a stretch at all to consider current SM platforms as the modern-day equivalent of taking business associates to the golf course, a restaurant for a relaxed meal, or a bar for some drinks after business hours. And for consumers, it has taken the place of the 19th-century knocking on a neighbor’s door to ask Melanie what she thinks of this or that product, or the 20th-century model of calling Frank to ask how he likes his new whatever.

Businesses of all stripes, ever keen on doing whatever it might take to bolster that bottom line, have been active in utilizing these SM platforms since they first appeared. The ultimate goal, of course, is to increase sales of all products or services as much as possible. And even though SM has not really been around long enough for analysts to be unanimous in declaring its use to universally increase sales, most agree that it forms an essential part of today’s business strategy.

“Retailers are investing more time and money in their social media strategies,” writes Alicia Fiorletta, senior editor for retailtouchpoints.com. “As many as 66 percent of retailers said they have a social strategy in place in 2014, versus 60 percent in 2013. … When used effectively, social media can help retailers generate buzz and even boost both online and in-store traffic.”

“But retail executives, analysts and experts continue to debate social media’s impact on bottom-line results,” Fiorletta adds. “Recent industry research confirms that social media can influence sales both online and in the store: 40 percent of all social media users have purchased items online or in-store after sharing or ‘favoriting’ them on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest, according to research.”

Another important point to consider, according to industry expert Daniel Rudy, is that SM represents a group of tools that is only a part of a business’ effective marketing strategy. Rudy is a partner in Warren, New Jersey-based Leading Edge Digital, which “is all about bringing business to (their) clients via the Internet” and offers expertise in social media marketing among other services.

“A business owner has to keep in mind that social media marketing is just a part of digital marketing, which is a part of marketing, which in turn is a part of the overall business plan,” Rudy points out. “In other words, although it’s probably worthwhile to have a presence in SMM, one has to kind of keep it in perspective, and not neglect any other part of overall marketing strategy, or your business plan in general.”

Another mistake that Rudy sees too often is a retailer or other business owner getting caught up in the latest hip trend and diving in without considering how applicable it might be for his or her business.

“It’s important to start this process from the top down, rather than the other way around,” he advises. “One shouldn’t simply jump in to, say, Twitter’s latest innovation just because it’s new. It has to be considered as part of the overall strategy.”

SM 3.0

Most retailers are already on board with those platforms that have been around the longest (like Facebook and Twitter), and some have gone as far as to have a channel on YouTube. But there are a number of other platforms that have earned some prominence for themselves, and a smart retailer should at least consider if those newer platforms can provide any assistance to that bottom line.

Facebook. This is clearly the 800-pound gorilla in the room, and with well over a billion users, it can’t be ignored. Although we’ve said that not all SM platforms are for everyone, this could be the exception, as it has nearly 75 percent of the United States’ population represented. Although many sources tend to agree that it isn’t the best venue out there to generate actual sales, “(I)t is definitely the best platform for increasing awareness of your brand,” says James Scherer on his blog, blog.wishpond.com. He goes on to state that every business, period, should be on Facebook.

Rudy seems to agree, pointing out that the specific targeting capabilities on FB, even though they seem to be getting more difficult as the platform’s owners continually tweak and re-tweak the site, are simply unmatched by any other platform. It’s possible to boost a post (as long as it doesn’t have forbidden items, like firearms, as part of the content) very specifically by geography, age, interests and more.

Going with Rudy’s 80/20 rule (80 percent of your posts and presence should be useful and interesting content, and 20 percent should be actual promotions), this is an excellent place to put much of that 80-percent, user-friendly material to help build your image and presence as the go-to guy for your products and services.

Perhaps Facebook’s biggest problem, Digiday’s Ricardo Bilton points out, is Facebook itself.

“The platform has generated a great deal of ill will from brands turned off by the company’s throttling of organic social reach over the past year,” he suggests. Organic reach is the amount that a given post will spread out and appear in other friends’ and followers’ news feeds, in the absence of any sponsored boosts. Bilton is not alone in suggesting that the company, in what many see as ongoing efforts to squeeze as much revenue from users as possible, might be in the process of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Twitter. This platform has a few major strengths which make it a worthy candidate for most SMM decision makers. One is that it is a perfect medium for anyone following a person or event, moment by moment, so if there are any particular events that your business sponsors, Twitter is an excellent platform in which to have built up a following.

Another big point in its favor, says Rudy, is that these are the guys who pioneered the use of hashtags as a means of making posted information searchable, and therefore maintaining a strong presence here is likely to make it easy for people to find you and what you’re offering. And when you need to speak “directly” to a particular customer, this format lends itself well to one-on-one communication, says Gil.

Direct purchases are unlikely here, even though earlier in 2014 they offered AmazonCart, which allows users to mark items for purchase from Amazon while still in the “Twitterverse.” But experts point out that people aren’t on Twitter to do their shopping, so these opportunities seem unlikely to work most of the time. Yet the move is one that could help poise the platform to move closer to real commerce activity, and digiday.com reports that Twitter is working on additional features to further promote this.

Beyond The Big Dogs

Introduced in 2011, Pinterest might seem at first glance to be just a glorified photo gallery. But a closer look will show that it has a real role in affecting how people purchase a number of items. In the few short years it has been in existence, it has garnered more than 70 million users (and that number is from 2013). Its format is fairly simple: People post images (original or from other sources), and others can comment, like or “re-pin” them onto their own boards. This simple formula has resulted in an environment that has made it a fertile shopping ground for anyone looking to purchase something based at least in part on how it looks, and this has naturally attracted businesses like apparel, fashion and jewelry.

Another noteworthy characteristic of the platform? “It is heavily skewed toward women, especially in their 30s and 40s,” says Rudy. And one should not underestimate the power represented here, especially as more than a fifth of all adults in America use it … and 84 percent of those are women, according to Scherer.

Given the importance of women in today’s world of firearms purchasers and the undeniable visual appeal that a firearm (and many accessories) boasts, the commercial possibilities for sales in your business should be evident.

This kind of “reverse showrooming” (people browsing products online before going to the physical retail store to follow up), as Julian Stratenschulte of the British paper The Guardian calls it, is apparently practiced by nearly half of Pinterest users, and could represent an important means whereby a customer finds his — or more likely, her — way into your store.

Instagram. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, and like Pinterest this one is highly graphic-oriented and should therefore be a contender as part of your overall SM campaign. Unlike Pinterest, however, this platform is fueled by original, user-generated images and videos. In fact, according to Rudy, when users post images gleaned from other sources, the digital community tends to censuring them.

But if you’re interested in targeting a younger audience, “millenials” are populating this environment in increasing numbers. It’s been well established that Facebook’s reign at the top of the SM universe isn’t quite as strong as it had been, and this is due in part to a significant number of members spending less and less time there.

This is especially true of the younger age brackets, partly in an effort to escape the prying eyes of parents. Instagram has proven to be a popular playground for a number of users in their late teens all the way to 30 years old, and many brands and stores are leveraging this platform effectively. Reports also suggest that even though it has fewer members than some of the giants (like Facebook), its base is very dedicated: 57 percent of Instagram users, according to Scherer, access it every single day.

Posts, both stills and video, are easily searched by members, and the system has a fairly robust filter system to help key in on items of particular interest, making it surprisingly user friendly.

Others. There are a number of other services that should be on your radar as well in considering your overall SMM strategy. We all know and like YouTube both for what it does and for what it can do. Firearms retailers are well advised to consider establishing a presence, in the form of a channel, on this Internet giant. (For a full discussion on some approaches here, see the June 2014 issue of Shooting Sports Retailer for “Boost Sales By Becoming A YouTube Sensation.”) Another compelling reason to have a strong YouTube presence? They’re currently the world’s second-largest search engine, says Rudy.

LinkedIn also has its place in the social media marketing space, but most sources agree that it lends itself best to professional development and job searching. Consultants, attorneys and the like are well suited to this landscape. The majority of LinkedIn users visit only occasionally (about 13 percent sign in daily), so the level of engagement overall isn’t as high as in other platforms. Nevertheless, it is easy to sign in and set up a profile, and those who put in the effort are seeing some benefit from initiating conversation threads, and some users have succeeded in establishing themselves as industry experts.

Reddit.com is generally considered one of the last places to try when setting up a SM strategy to bolster marketing and sales, and with good reason: The site is set up almost as anti-marketing, and any blatant efforts to sell anything there get the perpetrator voted down into oblivion. But anyone who takes the time to learn the culture (“reddiquette” it’s sometimes called) can turn this to their advantage. Just be prepared to spend a good amount of time dwelling there and learning the lay of the land first. If you happen to be on the site already as a hobbyist or enthusiast in any of the other areas of your life, that experience will obviously help.

Are words your thing? Tumblr.com might be a good fit for you. As Takeshi Young states on his moz.com blog, Tumblr is at its core a blogging site, and by following the simple rules of blogging in general, this site’s other features can allow a user to build up a sizeable following. And users can reblog at will without having even to “follow” the original blogger — and those reblogs all point back to your original post.

And, of course, there are plenty of options to dress up any posts with graphics, videos and the like.

There are others as well, and two that have come up in conversations are Vine (another video posting platform) and Google Plus. As of this writing, it seems that most of the industry looking to bolster retail activity aren’t discussing these quite as much as the others. Vine is only available on mobile phones and limits video length to 6 seconds, and Google Plus still seems to be finding its niche — although as Rudy informs us, G+ is good at hashtagging and therefore optimizing search capabilities, and seems to be an increasingly popular spot for people to digitally hang out.

And many believe that participation in Google Plus helps with your Google search engine optimization, or SEO.

Tie It All Together

Finally, if you find yourself well-embedded on a number of different social media platforms, one utility that can assist in keeping it all together and coordinating it is HootSuite. This software can manage your presence in dozens of social networks, schedule messages and posts in advance, and help to measure just how much success the efforts are producing.

That last one is important. Having a handle on your ROI (return on investment) is an essential part of any business effort, and Rudy agrees that it’s important to see what’s working and what’s not.

“Obviously we’d like to see immediate results,” he says. “Begin your first efforts, and continue them for perhaps a month. If you’re not seeing the responses you want within that time, try a different tack.”

Most of the services under discussion include utilities that allow users to quantify how much engagement (likes, shares, comments) their activity is generating.

Like anything else, this all takes time. How much time your business might need to invest depends on a great many factors, like how much volume you have, what exactly you’d like to get out of SMM, and the like. But Rudy estimates that a typical independent retailer is probably looking to spend something like four hours a week administering his social media marketing plan — at least if he’s new to this environment.

Like all of marketing, it’s often difficult to directly correlate time and money spent on these to actual dollars earned as a result, and virtually all analysts agree that SMM is still sufficiently young that hard and fast statements about its effectiveness cannot be made — yet.

It seems safe to say, however, that as more and more of us spend time dwelling in the digital universe, this is the place where more and more decisions — like, which real-world firearm and which accessories should be the next purchase — are being made. And if you aren’t seeking your customers in the places where they spend their time, you will likely lose out to your competitors who are.