In a pay-to-play world, small business success in social media can often feel like an oxymoron.

In this current environment, how can small business retailers and merchants possibly compete against massive brands with unlimited budgets? We won’t sugarcoat it for you; it’s hard. The most important thing to keep in mind, however, is that small businesses such as clothing boutiques aren’t competing — and shouldn’t be trying to — with colossal brands such as H&M and Forever 21. Though your demographic might frequent big-box retailers for their steep discounts and extensive selection, they visit your store for different reasons: personality and personalization. Keep these strengths in mind while strategizing your social media plan and conquering the hashtag. Following our 5 social media tips below will help you kickoff, or refresh, your social media brand.

1. Choose the Right Platform

One of the most common mistakes made by small businesses is not considering who their audience is or where they are (i.e. what social platform/s they are using). At the end of the day, if you’re targeting the wrong channel, it doesn’t matter how brilliant your plan might be, you will never see the returns you want. So, if you’re not a social media guru — and let’s face it, if you’re reading this you probably aren’t — research is your sharpest tool. Start with a clear and concise picture of your demographic, and then research to see where they hang out, online. Let’s use the example of a clothing boutique again. If your demographic is fashion-forward urban females between the ages of 25 and 35 — and you’re looking to develop a visual and trend-setting brand — you’re not going to want to target them on Twitter. Sure, they might be on Twitter, but not for the reason you want to connect with them. Instead, spruce up on your Instagram game and build a brand around fresh relatable posts that show off your store’s unique style and vibe. Just make sure to do your research on hashtags. They’re powerful little symbols that if leveraged correctly can connect you with the exact people you are looking to reach.

2. Add Value

Just like in email marketing, adding value for your customers is key in any engagement strategy. Whether online, offline or via email, being able to create value that will excite your customers and draw them into your store, can be the difference between a growing business and a stagnant one. Believe it or not, as a small business you have an upper hand over larger retailers. By this, we mean, you know your customers. You interact with them on a daily basis and hear their wishes, their wants, and their gripes. Take advantage of this insight to give your patrons what they want, both in-store and online. When posting on social media, practice what is referred to as the 80/20 rule. Make sure that at least 80 percent of the content you distribute online benefits your customers. Then reserve the remaining 20 percent to talk about your business. Informative, engaging, and often humorous content is the way to go. But remember, the exact personality of a social profile will vary depending on the brand. So keep your cookie cutters in the kitchen. They are not needed for social media. Stick to posts that express your store’s unique personality: 10 Dresses No One Else Will Wear this Wedding Season or Your Closet at 25 versus 35. With endless content online, what you post on social media can’t just sit on your channel, but needs to be witty enough to take on a life of its own. Remember not to forget the social aspect of social media. Don’t be afraid to get a little up close and personal. Highlighting customer experiences, sharing employee pictures, and giving customers a behind-the-scenes look into your business will personalize your store and emphasize the time and love that is dedicated to it.

SEE ALSO: Integrating Email Marketing Software With Your POS System

3. Budget Your Time

Small business owner up late working on social media.

As a small business owner, you’re probably already a time-management master — you’ve got it covered! But if social media is new to you, we’re going to forewarn you that from setting up your accounts, to updating your posts, to monitoring social interactions, it’s going to take a significant amount of time. This might be time that you think you simply don’t have, and you might very well be right. Luckily, there are tools available that can help you automate, what can otherwise seem like, daunting tasks. Using technology that allows you to schedule social media posts is one of the most effective ways to budget your time, allowing you to focus on other aspects of your business. There is just one simple rule to remember when using automation tools, as with most things in life, everything in moderation. Tools such as Hootsuite or SproutSocial can help you schedule posts and monitor engagement for more than one social channel at a time. Finding the tool that works best for you will depend on what social channels you plan on using and what you aim to track. A few tools that we recommend using to track your social engagement are Buzzsumo and Social Report. Many of these tools have both free and paid versions. What you choose will ultimately depend on how extensive your social media strategy becomes.

4. Monitor to Improve

Small business owner interacting with customers on social media.

Unfortunately, social media is not a set-it-and-forget-it aspect of your business. And the only way to learn how to improve your strategy is to monitor the buzz online. Using the tools that we mentioned above can help by capturing social metrics such as total number of likes, comments, and shares. As a small business you probably don’t have a social media budget to work with or you are wary of spending money to help you track the success of your free social media assets. Free tools like Google Alerts allow you to track any mentions of your business online by having them delivered directly to your mailbox. Monitoring your improvement also includes personally engaging with your audience. Just because you can schedule and monitor your posts from afar, doesn’t mean that you’ll never have to address the nitty gritty: responding to your customers. How you interact with your audience says just as much (if not more) about your brand as what you post on a daily basis. So make sure your online — and especially public — interactions reflect the mindful and conscious brand you are. Keep track of the number of interactions (both positive and negative) you receive. And remember, one negative interaction or review is not the end of the world. Resolving a customer complaint publicly has the potential to show your entire audience that your brand not only cares about customer experience, but is also receptive to criticism.

5. Be Consistent

Small business owner using Facebook on their phone.

Just because your mood might fluctuate from day to day, doesn’t mean that the branding of your business has the same luxury. The consistency between your online and offline presence is one of the most important, yet overlooked, aspects of social media marketing. Inconsistencies in your branding, messaging, or tone can cause confusion among your online audience, which can lead to distrust and disinterest among prospective and current customers. Most people don’t make buying decisions instantly. This is especially true for small businesses selling specialty services or products that require large investments. Creating and maintaining a consistent brand helps keep your store or business top-of-mind during the buying process. If you’re brand fluctuates between being humorous and serious with its online post, a customer is less likely to remember you as the witty coffee shop with the cute barista and hilarious Instagram account. Because really, who wants to visit a morose coffee shop? So keep your post consistent, engaging, and on-brand to a T.

If small business success in social media seems like a lot of time and effort, it is. But it can also be a lot fun and incredibly rewarding, both for your business’ brand, as well as your bottom line. Remember that, no social media strategy is built in a day. So whether it takes you weeks or months, if you follow our 5 steps to success, the eventual exposure your business will gain will be well worth your effort.

Sara Sugar

Sara Sugar

As Managing Editor at ShopKeep, a leading iPad Point of Sale System, Sara Sugar uses her distinguished journalism background to boil down small business and point of sale topics.