How can a small business leverage social media? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. 

Answer by Alex Tsepko, CEO of Skylum Software, on Quora: 

The 21st century has thus far been defined by a constant and ever-accelerating evolution of the digital world.

Particularly in the communication and media space, technology providers continue to innovate. Everyday, it seems, new forms of content sharing are developed and distributed to the masses. Then, the next day, they’re displaced by something else.

For companies and brands, this is, on the one hand, fantastic, since it’s never been easier to get your ideas out into the world. But on the other hand, all this digital innovation has contributed to a cumulation of digital noise.

It may be easier than ever to get your ideas out there, but in some ways, it’s harder than ever to assure you’re heard.

It used to be that engaging with your audience was simple. Brands used the same messages, images, and posts across all social media platforms. Now, your engagement has to be differentiated every time. Take Instagram, for example, where you have to post pictures to your account, on your Stories, and on IGTV — content that must always be created individually (as in, it can’t be automated). This requires a serious investment of both time and production capacity.

Most companies have responded to this challenge in one of two ways:

  1. Trying to cheat the system by buying followers or engaging in paid media.
  2. Investing in original content to try and be more organically interesting.

Most who aligned themselves with option number one have failed, since users, customers, and more leisurely consumers of digital media despise being sold to and dislike content that they can tell is disingenuous.

But here’s the catch: most who’ve focused solely on the second option have failed, too.

For your voice, brand, or message to actually stand out, you need a two-pronged approach.

Social media is very much a business. You can do everything right on the creative side — engaging with users in a purely organic fashion, crafting witty headlines and Tweets — and still have trouble gaining traction and exposure.

This is something my team and I at Skylum have learned the hard way. Our social media strategy is actually something we’re still working to hone. We’ve worked hard to be respectful of our readers on social media — meaning we take pains to engage in an authentic fashion, not overdo it with self-promotion, and generally structure our content to connect with them on a more casual level. But we also put money and thought behind our posts.Simply put, your digital content must be both authentic and powered by paid advertising.

You should budget, in other words, to cultivate and grow your social media reach. You should pay to reach more people through an increasingly diverse array of channels. And you should invest in fashioning your brand’s digital identity and ethos so that it’s recognizable, authentic, and attractive.

On the creative side, though, you must also recognize that neither you nor your brand are inherently unique — so you have to set yourself apart.

Readers, in other words, won’t give you a pass just because you make a point of not selling to them. They won’t read your content because your product seems interesting or new — or at least, you shouldn’t bank on that approach. To assume so is lazy.

Rather, part of your investment in digital media needs to prioritize creating content and messaging that is itself provoking and different.

My team recognizes that Skylum, for example, is not meaningfully unique — at least not on social media. Lots of companies work with photographers and create software for creators. Our job, then, is to package our ideas, solutions, and messages in a way that’s innovative and fresh — that makes us feel different in the eyes of readers.

That’s a job which itself requires being adaptable, humble, and keeping an ear to the culture.

It’s to that end that we’re also investing in user-generated content.

Which is to say, because we’re a very visual brand and all our communication evolves around photos, we often engage our audience to help us create visual content.

We have different ways we do this — featuring users’ images and exemplifying before/after effects on users’ shots, for example.

We’ve also started a YouTube series which we cross-post on Instagram called #madewithluminar. In the series, we take processed images from our users and solicit a professional photographer for his opinion of what’s been done well in the photo, and what else could be done to enhance the image further. This activity triggered a heavier use of the hashtag, and in this way, we discover new photographers who we can collaborate with.

It also necessitates dedicating a component of your staff specifically to digital content creation.

The manner in which you go about creating content and engaging online can’t be something that you, your leadership team, or an individual manager already stretched thin handles “in their free time.” It’s a full-time job. You need to identify what sort of content resonates with people, strategize how to design your own content to be relatable and engaging, and help to determine how, exactly, you can tie your product into that messaging.

The job also entails going out into the world and talking with people. You need to be engaging with them on a personal level to determine what aspects of your product or service interests them, and then reorient your messaging around that key component.

You can also engage with influencers and with other brands to expand your reach; it’s a good thing to be known and recognized, after all, but additional awareness and reach never hurt anyone. At Skylum, we’re now working with brand partners around the world to create various contests and opportunities for user engagement. We find this increases our exposure to new potential customers and shows our current audience that we have great industry partners that, together with us, can create even more value for them.

At the end of the day, although you want to be flexible and evolve as the web evolves, you also need to be deliberate and purposeful.

Which is to say, you need to treat your digital content creation and dissemination processes with the same seriousness you would other critical aspects of your business.

You should use data to affirm which strategies work and which don’t; where your audience members spend their time; and what they want to hear. You should invest money and time both in the creation of your content as well as the constant re-evaluation of it. And you should dedicate members of your team to focus on the vertical.

At Skylum, our main goal is to not only highlight the quality of our products, but to also educate our community and motivate them to go out and start creating amazing images — images which we can later help to make look their best.

There’s a lot of opportunity and potential in the digital media landscape today. There’s also ample opportunity to make mistakes.

Invest in this area of your business accordingly, and you can ultimately reduce that risk.

This question originally appeared on Quora – the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter and Facebook. More questions:

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