This blog post originally appeared on my blog at the Harvard Business Review.
“Create a social media presence that highlights your expertise,” I told a room full of entrepreneurs. “And that will do more to drive business to your site than anything else you can afford during your startup phase.”
Then came the question I know enough to dread. I talk to a lot of business audiences about how they can use social media to build their reputation, and there’s always someone who wonders if that strategy is really viable in their market, their field, their budget.
“How could this work for me?” asked a man who was thinking about his small chain of language schools, and especially, how to expand the demand for his after-school classes for kids. “What’s the best way to get more customers for my schools?”
If I were speaking to a North American business audience, that question might have stumped me, or at least sent me to Google for a quick scan of the competitive landscape. But I was in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, speaking to a group of business people who were part of a year-long program run by the UK-based School for Startups. Googling the competition would simply have turned up a sea of websites that were impenetrable to me as a non-Romanian speaker. So I had to put my question to the room:
“If you want to find out about second language learning for kids, are there any websites that can help…in Romanian?”
The answer was no: the field was wide open. That’s the beauty of launching a startup in Romania, a country of 21 million in which you can be guaranteed that virtually anyone who speaks your language is sitting in your market. If you’re running a business in Canada, or Jamaica, or New Zealand, your English-language website has to compete for attention with websites run out of the US, the UK or any of the dozens of English-speaking countries around the world. Your customers may be right next door in geographic terms, but once you go online they are spread in a thin layer that stretches around the world.
Romanian business people, in contrast, have a clearly defined market in which their offline customers are defined by a common online language. That makes it easy to target online content — even content on a very widely-covered topic, like early childhood language study — and to become the premiere online destination for people seeking that content in their native language.
But the Romanian strategy isn’t limited to those targeting a small language group. You too can become the premiere online destination for your market, if you can find a way of defining a boundary around your customers in a way that speaks uniquely to them. You can make your own Romania. Here are 5 ways to do it:
Use a foreign language. Usually I advise people to avoid jargon, but if you are trying to reach a specific professional audience, jargon can work in your favor. Using vocabulary that is specific to your peers, particularly words that are searched frequently in your field, can help you position yourself as an insider and ensure you come up when they look for information on that topic. If you are speaking to an audience in a specific (non-English) language group, so much the better: you’re differentiating yourself from all the English-only options already out there.
Focus on a location. Maybe you won’t be the top English-language website about early childhood language education (or supply chain management, or maternity care, or mortgage finance). But you can be the top English-language Twitter feed for early education resources in Pittsburgh. Or the most comprehensive set of YouTube videos about dance studios in LA. Or the best blog about recruitment strategy in the Southwest. Define your location focus very clearly (in the name of your blog or your Twitter handle and description) and make sure that a solid majority (70%+) of your content is geographically specific.
Focus on a demographic. One of the drivers of social media success is a clear voice with plenty of personality. But it’s hard to create an online voice that appeals to both grannies and grads, to partiers and managers, to curmudgeons and Pollyannas. Defining the demographics and psychographics of your target customers can help you create a social media presence (or possibly, two or three quite different presences) with a voice and focus that will appeal to your target. Bake that targeting into your content and your message: sell designer cola to urban moms by offering advice on the latest hipster mommy hangouts; market software to aspiring CIOs with a Twitter feed targeted at mid-level tech managers; pitch your restaurant at the after-work drinks crowd with videos that appeal to 20-something singles.
Add a keyword. Search for skiing videos and you’ll see how hard it would be to market your resort by creating the definitive site on skiing technique. But add the word “telemark” and the field narrows by 97%. So find the keyword that represents your area of greatest strength, and focus on being the top expert in that subarea. Often that’s a matter of identifying the intersection point between two different topics: you can’t be the top expert on mobile or on wayfinding but you could be the top expert on mobile wayfinding. You can’t be the top expert on action movies or athletic gear but you can create the top site for athletic gear spotted in action movies. You won’t be the top expert on banking or women-owned businesses but you can be the top Twitter feed with banking and finance advice for women-owned businesses.
Focus with Facebook. Get to know the ways that both Facebook and Google can target their advertising, and tailor your social media presence to appeal to locations or demographics that you can pinpoint through online advertising. The best way to figure out your targeting options is to try setting up a Facebook ad campaign or a Google ad campaign; each of them allows you to target in slightly different ways. For example, Facebook lets you target by age, education level, interests, and relationship status (among other things); Google lets you target by gender, location, the device being used to search, and of course, by the keywords your potential customer has searched on. If you’re focusing your social media presence (and especially your Facebook presence) on a demographic that Facebook’s ads can target — like single, college-educated women who are interested in travel — you’ll find it that much easier to use ads to build awareness of your online efforts. The same goes for creating a blog, Twitter or YouTube presence that appeals to a market you can isolate with Google Adwords.
Defining the boundary of your markets is more than just handy social media trick. By focusing your social media presence so that you can own a specific niche online, you’ll also get clearer about your overall marketing and growth strategy. And you better do that fast, because the Romanians are catching up.