Five steps for using social media to create community and generate sales.

We’ve all heard it: You need to market your store through social media. But what exactly does that mean? Do you need a “buy” tab on your Facebook page? Or should you maintain a presence on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and every other social media site out there?

Experts agree that selling through social media means reaching customers where they live. Susan Gunelius, president and CEO of KeySplash Creative and the founder and editor-in-chief of the website WomenOnBusiness.com, says online sales are increasingly important for retailers today.

“Where do you go to find products and services today? You go to the internet,” she says. “You might ask your friends, but you’re probably going to do that on Facebook. You go where your customers are, and the internet is where they are.”

Social media sales represent a significant portion of all internet sales. Actually putting items on Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest, however, is only the last step in a complete online marketing program.

Before you can use social media for sales, Gunelius advises, you need an effective, stand-alone website. “If you want to grow, you’re going to want full control. You’re going to want to host your website on your own domain, and you’re going to want to use WordPress. There are a variety of shopping cart tools and add-ons and plugins that you can use to build and grow and create exactly what you want. Your goal is to create your core, branded destination.”

Once you have a website in place, then it’s time to create a plan for using social media for sales.

“All roads are going to lead back to that destination,” she says. “Think of social media as tentacles reaching out from your website, preferably with a blog on it. That’s how you’re going to get more traffic, and more people sharing your stuff via social media.”

Gunelius has five steps for retailers to help create a social media-friendly website and then connect it with social media.

FIND YOUR AUDIENCE.

“Who are you trying to connect with?” Gunelius asks. “Where do they hang out online? Are they on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Pinterest? That can vary, depending on their goals. Taking a “shotgun” approach and hitting all social media isn’t effective use of your time.

“The vast majority of people don’t have the time or budget to be everywhere,” Gunelius says. “Ultimately, your goal is to surround people with your content and branded experiences so they can self-select how they want to interact with your brand. You have to focus on your niche.”

CREATE GREAT CONTENT

“That’s what generates sharing and conversations,” Gunelius says. “It helps build trust in your brand. You have to really work to build a relationship and build brand awareness by creating a ton of good meaningful, useful content.”

That’s where a blog is useful, says Gunelius. “It gives you an opportunity to really show your authority and your trustworthiness,” she said. “You can show that you’re providing value.”

NEVER STOP RESEARCHING

“You need to watch what your competitors are doing on social media,” she advises. “You also need to watch what your target consumers are doing. What kind of information are they looking for? What engages them? What brings them back for more? Then you need to give them those things.”

Gunelius recommends benchmarking the tactics of anyone who may be taking customers away. “Figure out what you may be able to do similarly to be able to appeal to your own audience, and apply those things to your store.”

GIVE MORE THAN YOU RECEIVE

“Eighty percent or more of the content you publish on social media should not be self-promotional,” Gunelius says. “It should be useful, meaningful content that helps to build relationships with your audience and makes them trust your brand. Only 20 percent or less of your content can be self-promotional.”

Subjects a Christian retailer can write about include historical research from the Holy Land, devotions, important days in the church calendar, or book reviews.

There are two schools of thought about blogs, Gunelius says. “Longer posts are more sharable. But shorter posts give more entry points to your website.”

The same rules of thumb hold true for content that you’re posting to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

DIVERSIFY YOUR SOCIAL WEB ACTIVITIES

“You never want to put all your eggs in one basket,” Gunelius says. “As you become more comfortable and test new tools, you want to spread your online brand further and connect with a broader audience, and people who will talk about your brand for you. That way you don’t have to do all the work yourself.”

According to Gunelius, it’s a domino effect. “As you start investing time into this, it will grow and you will find brand advocates,” she says. “But you have to make sure that you’re creating a variety of branded experiences so people can self-select how they want to find you, interact with you, and share your content.”

Once you have followed these steps, then it’s time to start selling on those social media sites. Set up a store page on Facebook, add the “Shop Now” button, and import items onto your Facebook page. On your Pinterest page, add “Buyable pins.”

“Any opportunity to get people to buy, especially with fewer clicks, is something to take advantage of,” Gunelius says. “But should one of those be your only online store? Absolutely not. What if Facebook changes the rules tomorrow and says no more storefronts? What you’re doing is giving people opportunities to buy as quickly and easily as possible.”

It all comes down to what the consumer wants.

As Gunelius says, “Every piece of content you create should be created with the question in mind: What can I do to solve some problem that my audience has?

— Carolee Boyles