Running an online business isn’t as easy as you often think it will be. Marketing is one skill many small business owners struggle with, especially when it comes to audience growth and converting those followers to sales. But often, once you’ve mastered marketing on one platform, you can transfer those skills across all other social media platforms.
If you’ve wondered how to make money from an online audience, you’re not alone. I recently chatted to Helen Perry about this on my podcast. Helen helps other small businesses with their content marketing on Instagram and via email. She shared some excellent insights on the reality of making a business from an online audience. So if you’re looking for some tips on how you can use social media to grow your business, keep reading!
As with anything, growing an audience takes time, and there are no shortcuts. You need to take your time to really understand the platform you’re using and also how your audience uses it. And growing and monetising it is an ongoing job. You always need to be looking for new people, no matter what type of business you’re in. Even if you only need a few new customers every year, you can’t just stick with the same people. So there’s a constant element of audience growth involved.
But don’t get sidetracked by how big your list is. Nobody is immune to the dopamine effects of acquiring a new follower. But when you acquire followers for followers' sake, you’ll find many don’t interact with you or have any intention of buying from you, which can affect the algorithms and your sales.
There’s no point getting vast amounts of followers on your social media accounts if they’re not the right people for you. If you’re a product-based business, you need people interested in your product, and a service-based business needs to find the right kind of people you want to work with and who want to work with you.
Because there are other people out there selling what you sell, but they’re not right for everyone - and you’re not right for everyone either. So take your time to steadily grow an audience that is right for you and your business.
How can you attract the right people? Bring your voice and your honest opinions into everything you share online. Use reels and videos to show your personality and put a face to the person behind the business.
You need to appreciate that social media is a two-way channel; it's not just you. The real benefit of being on social media is having a conversation with the people you might sell to. They will tell you what they like about your product, what doesn't work for them and what would work better.
And you can use that dialogue with your audience to build something that will be more profitable over time. Ask questions, get their insights into potential new products, create polls and surveys and generally start a conversation with your ideal audience.
It’s often easier for a product-based business to make a sale online. People often buy products from Instagram, and it’s a great place to promote your shop. They have a clear sense of what you’re selling and to whom through the images you share. You may even have a clear idea of which products will work well on Instagram and decide to promote just those things, not your entire range of products.
But it’s often harder for a service-based business to make sales on Instagram. You also need to have a clear message about what you offer and who you work with. It needs to demonstrate who you are so your ideal clients resonate and connect with it; otherwise, no one will ask to work with you. And often, you’re not looking to make the sale within the platform but to continue the conversation away from it - because the ultimate goal is to move people off social media and onto your own managed space.
One of your own managed spaces is your mailing list. This is the number one place to start, whether you’re on social media or not - start collecting and storing email addresses of the people who might work with you in the future or have worked with you in the past. It's so valuable and is one of the most effective ways to sell to people.
Think of your social media platforms as the top of the funnel. It's somewhere people can discover you for the first time and get a little impression of what you do. But once you've got them there, if you can drive them onto a more secure platform, one where you can have a bit of a slower, more meaningful, less distracted conversation, then that’s the next step towards converting them into a customer.
Whether you’re running an online service-based business or a product-based one, people want to connect with the person behind it all. As a potential buyer, you want to feel like you’re working with someone you want to give your money to, who will get you and understand your values and what you want. Social media allows you to show that. That’s why simple things like sharing your favourite flavour crisps or doing the school run work well - they help you connect.
People like to connect with people who are a bit like them or aspire to be. So be honest - show all sides of you, even the side that isn’t perfect. People love that, as it helps ease their pressure on trying to be flawless and perfect. No one wants to work with someone who’s perfect - there are too many fears about letting them down or not being good enough to work with them. So give people the whole story as it makes a huge difference.
And that’s the real benefit of being your own boss; you can stay close to those stories about you, why you’re doing what you’re doing, how you’re supporting your family, and why you make something a certain way. Add you to it all; people buy people. You will repel some, but know that they weren’t right for you and you weren’t right for them, so you can peacefully go your separate ways.
Don’t think of your social media as a bit of an afterthought. You've got to think, if you're going to put some noise out into a very noisy platform, is it something worth listening to? Look at your account and ask yourself whether you'd follow it? Is there anything on there that is valuable enough to other people that they might tell a mate about it? This is how you grow an audience.
So if you're going to share something, make it valuable, don't hold onto all your good stuff, give away some of your knowledge and information, truly make it good and give it time and love before you put it out there. As with everything, what you put into it is what you get back out.
Know that there's no such thing as giving away too much for free. But don't give away things for free without telling people how they can get the paid-for thing you sell, how they can get more, and how they can get it personalised.
You may have posted 10 times this week, but somebody's seen it maybe once because of how the algorithm works. They don't see everything whilst scrolling through Instagram or Facebook, and they don't always see the emails they receive. Never think you're sharing too much - you’d have to be sharing 50 Instagram posts a day for people to start thinking you are! Think about how you use the platforms and how you might have a week where you don’t look at it very much or how you don’t engage with someone’s content for a few days. Your audience is no different - you may think you’ve been banging on about something, and they may have barely registered your message!
It's a real home truth to understand that people aren’t paying much attention to your content. They’re not reading your captions carefully, not opening blog posts and reading to the end, and not listening through your whole podcast. We do have to be humble about how much time people have to give and share enough that they stand a chance of seeing some of it.
And in the same vein, there will be weeks when you don't share anything. If you go through a time where you've had enough of social media, come off it for a bit, and it will be fine. It’ll still be there when you come back. Sometimes other things have to take priority; something in life, something in work, and you can switch the volume back up on your socials when you're ready.
No matter what type of business you’re in, know that it will take time to build a community. If you haven’t started an audience yet, start today. Get on social media, even if you’re not quite sure what you’re selling yet, and start writing about the things that are important to you. Share things you’re up to and talk about things you’re working on even if they’re not finished yet.
Start growing that audience because unless you have a big budget, it’s something that’s going to take time. Take the time to implement the tips above and post more. People will respond to you and your posts, answer the questions you ask, interact, engage, and ultimately buy from you. And once your audience grows, that community will be very loyal, which will make a big difference to your overall business success.
If you’d like to learn more about how Helen Perry can help you market your business and grow an online community that powers your work, click here to head over to her website. You can also find her on Instagram and LinkedIn and listen to her podcast here.