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How social media can boost exports

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If you don't have mountains of money to invest, think about putting some time into social media instead.

This article first appeared in the Guardian.

Be rigorous, realistic and relevant: Ensure everything you post is interesting, informative or entertaining enough to make it stand out.

Social media is having a profound effect on exporters, and in particular, on small businesses, that often find their goods in demand from overseas customers long before they have thought about breaking into international markets.

The reason? Someone on the other side of the world has spotted their wares on Facebook or Pinterest and decided they want to buy them.

Steve Childs, head of International for Barclays small business, says: "By simply having a social media presence, businesses can receive a request from someone thousands of miles away wanting to buy their product, establishing a new customer base and contact almost immediately.

"We're also seeing more sole traders relying on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to bring export markets closer to home and open up new avenues of opportunity by embracing newer technologies."

Different networks for different markets

As part of an export strategy, social media can be a valuable tool for achieving better market penetration and engaging overseas customers. But business owners who want to maximize their online presence need to understand how the various social networks are used in their destination market.

European Automation, based in Staffordshire, U.K., supplies parts for the manufacturing industry, operates in 16 countries around the world, generates over 95 percent of export sales, and ranks the U.S. as one of its key markets.

Social media plays a key role in sales generation, customer relationship and marketing functions, but as head of marketing Jonathan Wilkins points out, there must be a clear strategy.

"As an SME (small- or medium-sized enterprise) you probably don't have much time or mountains of money to invest. If your goal is building a brand in a new market and generating sales in that region, then the first thing to do is choose your platform," he says.

This is not as straightforward as it sounds, as the 'right platform' can vary from region to region. In Germany, for example, Xing is the best performing professional network, according to a study on international social media by the Pew Research Centre.

Wilkins adds: "Their work also shows that in the United States, Pinterest and Instagram actually have more users than LinkedIn. However, because these are different types of networks you can't simply swap them out on a like-for-like basis. The point is that you need the intelligence and research to build your strategy."

Audience research is extremely important when launching a social media strategy in a new territory, and small businesses must ensure that the content they share is relevant to the audience they are trying to reach.

Rowan Evans, head of social media at digital agency Greenlight says: "Social media is a very personal form of advertising, so it is vital that brands take local sensitivities and cultural idiosyncrasies into consideration when creating content. Rolling out a U.K. social media strategy to a U.S. audience won't work if the audience has different concerns and preferences."

Social tools such as Crimson Hexagon and Sysomos can help SMEs understand how their social audience is behaving in a given location as well as in their sector.

Be true to your brand

For some exporters the big question is whether they need to adapt their brand, or at least the way it appears on social media, to their overseas markets.

Whatever market you're operating in, you have to be consistent with your brand values, says Louise Goulden, social media director, at digital agency Blonde.

"While you might want to tweak some of the language, I would never recommend that a brand changes its essential 'voice' for different territories, particularly in the world of digital, where country boundaries are virtually irrelevant," she says.

"Your customers in the U.K. are only a click or two away from seeing content you've created for the U.S., so if they come away with a differing experience from each, it can feel jarring."

What exporters can do, says Goulden, is create a roadmap for the customer journey in each market, ensuring that the content serves each stage of it and uses geo-targeting and paid advertising to put it in front of its intended audience.

Have a look at these dos and don'ts if you want to use social media to boost your exports:

Do

Have a workable customer service strategy in place. People expect a response to questions or complaints they post on social media within a few hours, especially on Twitter. How will you make this work across time zones?

Geo-target your content. Facebook allows you to set a post to be seen only by your followers in a certain country, meaning you can create offers, competitions and updates for each audience from one page. Consider setting up separate Twitter accounts if you're likely to post lots of market-specific content.

Don't

View social media as purely a free platform. If you want to scale up quickly you'll need to include advertising in the mix.

Think 'if we build it they will come.' Be rigorous, realistic and relevant: ensure everything you post, whatever the medium, is interesting, informative or entertaining enough to make it stand out, and have a plan for making sure it gets seen.

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John Smith
Great article. I use social all the time. So important.
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