Using Social Media in International Trade

The rise of social media is a great opportunity for any business to raise its international profile.  Perhaps the best thing about it is that many of the benefits can be enjoyed for little to no cost. But there are downsides as well.

The original rush to use social media as a promotional vehicle has settled down a bit, and it’s clear that some of the initial enthusiasts have reduced their activity drastically or even withdrawn altogether. But as a means of reaching potential customers and influencing existing ones, as well as in building brand reputation, some social media networks are well used by business, purely because they work.

For any business seeking to harness the power of social media for its international business, the most crucial factor is to know which networks your targets are using. Social Media strategist (yes, that’s a real profession!) Vincenzo Cosenza has mapped the popularity of the leading networks, and reported that Facebook is the most popular network in 119 out of 149 countries analyzed. That’s a small fall from his previous study a year earlier, but still confirms Facebook’s overall supremacy.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s the best network for everyone. Facebook is perhaps the most social of social media in the sense that much of the content is non-business. A lot depends on whether the exporter’s strategy is business to business (B2B) or business to customer (B2C). In other words, how important are those people who are sharing pictures of their pets and their dinner to your business?

Twitter, a more instantaneous network, which is increasingly used as a means of communicating directly with customers, is vying for second place in Cosenza’s study with Instagram. Instagram is ahead in more countries, but these are mostly in South America and the Middle East. In Western Europe and North America, Twitter is still ahead in volumes of traffic.

LinkedIn should not be overlooked, either. A much more business focused network, it is typified by professionals looking for jobs or seeking clients. It is more popular than either Twitter or Instagram in India and Japan, and is likely to appeal to businesses who have a B2B product or service.

It has been said that Twitter is a medium to find customers and Facebook is a medium to keep them. The use of all networks is evolving, but to some extent this generalization still stands. Twitter works best for peripheral messages. What I write now will be almost invisible in a few hours unless someone goes specifically looking for either me or the content of the message. Twitter also has a strict limit on the length of the message, although it is more amenable to links and images than it was a few years ago. Twitter is a medium that can be used frequently and intensively, and also works well as a two-way medium, even for individuals and businesses that we have no prior contact with. Sending numerous messages each day is quite effective on Twitter, especially when there is something going on such as an exhibition or other event. Using a hashtag, and encouraging others to pick it up is an effective way to create momentum.

Facebook by contrast, communicates with its users in a more sedate way. It’s just as instantaneous as Twitter, but really relies on establishing a relationship with other users and sharing more substantial messages on a more occasional basis. On Facebook, overuse can create problems, such as potentially facing a temporary ban or at least suffering from the effect of the network’s algorithms meaning that messages get a low priority and are less likely to be seen in a target’s feed. On the other hand, many businesses find Facebook to be a cost effective medium for advertising.

The crucial success factor in social media is to understand your customers/targets, find out where they can be found, and use the appropriate medium by following a strategy that works within its rules and practices. Set up pages and accounts that fit with your company’s image and branding, add messages and stories regularly, ‘follow’ or ‘friend’ other users as appropriate, and monitor the feedback carefully. Which messages are getting the most responses? Do certain keywords help? Is there a better day of the week or time of day?

Very importantly, monitor your accounts for messages. Don’t be surprised if a customer uses Facebook or Twitter to make a complaint or leave a compliment. And remember that if you are not monitoring the traffic, others can see some of these comments that may be damaging to your reputation if you don’t respond to them promptly.

Take time to understand your strategy before starting. Look at what competitors are doing, as well as comparable businesses. Note how many followers they have and, just as importantly, how many responses their messages are getting. It’s crucial to have a clear and realistic idea of what social media can do for your business and work accordingly. Many small businesses are finding it more effective than conventional advertising, but a lot depends on the nature of the business and the products/services.  Many smaller businesses will entrust their accounts to an independent professional, typically as part of an advertising and marketing contract.

Remember that whatever you write on social media is highly visible and, crucially, actionable. Always avoid libelous comments or untrue claims about your products or those of a competitor. And be especially sensitive to messages that may cause offence in other cultures. Twitter in particular can seem as informal as a casual conversation, but always remember it’s being shared around the world.

Above all, think of social media as tools to use in accordance with your marketing strategy. Control its use and ensure that all staff who have access understand what the objectives are and what is and is not appropriate. Used wisely, social media can be a valuable and incredibly cost effective asset to achieving your business objectives.

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