This post brought to you by Microsoft Office . The content and opinions expressed below are that of Ted Rubin Straight Talk.

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Social media is a powerful tool for connecting with customers, forming relationships, and growing your small business. Social advocacy is another big benefit of social connection. And small companies don’t necessarily need a dedicated social team to find success on popular platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Your employees know more about your business – and your customers – than anyone else. They understand the key challenges, needs and preferences of your target audience, along with the values that drive your small business.

However, while deep knowledge of your business is a great start, your in-house employees will still need some coaching before you set them loose on social media. Social media training for small businesses works best when it starts from the top, with a consistent message and clear goals for everyone who will represent your business on social channels.

Starting your social media training at the top is critical, because you need trusted, high-level employees who understand social well enough to keep tabs on everyone else. The boss doesn’t necessarily need to be an expert, but they do need to understand what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how you’re preferred social channels work. For employees to be effective social media advocates, everyone needs to be on the same page. Here are some tips for creating a successful employee advocacy strategy:

  • Informed Advocates – The first step is getting everyone familiar with how to use your preferred social sites, including how to post, share, reply to public comments, and respond to messages. Even though the big social sites share many similar qualities, you’ll want to review the basics for each site you plan to use. If an employee will be representing your brand on social, you need to be sure that they understand the fundamentals of all the platforms. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have solid support pages if you have questions on the basics, and a little searching can uncover social trainers who specialize in training on specific channels or a range of them.
  • Sharing Guidelines – What’s okay to share, and what’s not? Employees need to understand where to draw the line, and how representing your business is different than posting to their personal social pages. So it’s critical to draft a social governance policy that stipulates those guidelines. But it’s not just about avoiding offense or controversy. Set guidelines on acceptable outside sources for data, what types of internal data can be shared, and what types of “fun” posts fit the image you wish to project. Get your employees’ input on the drafting of this guide, and they’ll feel more comfortable and empowered to advocate for you on social channels instead of being afraid they’ll make a mistake.
  • Social Strategy – While firm guidelines are important, your social strategy should also grant employees a level of freedom. Micromanaging every phrase is impractical, and you’ll generally receive more authentic results by allowing for creativity within your guidelines. Employees should always understand who’s “signing off” on acceptable posts, and where to turn with questions. This is another good reason why the boss (or bosses) should be kept in the loop with social training.
  • Style and Standards – For many small businesses, social is a chance to show off some personality. Having some fun isn’t a bad thing, but a businesslike attitude is fine, too, as long as you make the effort to engage your social connections on a human level. You’ll find that customers often use social for customer service questions, so it’s also important that everyone understands who should reply, and how soon a comment should be met with a personalized response (ASAP).
  • Dealing with Challenging Situations – The other side of the customer service coin is that you will occasionally run into difficult personalities who post negative comments in public places on social. No matter how rude a person may be, or how legitimate their complaint, it’s always best to respond with kindness. You may not win over the problem customer, but publicly diffusing a difficult situation still reflects well on your brand. Remember, many of your prospects will check out your social channels just see how you respond to other people—a clear indication to them of how you might respond to them as a customer.

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As you and your employees train to make an impact on social channels, remember that there are plenty of resources available to help on your journey. Microsoft’s Office Small Business Academy is a great place to start, Register here, with content tailored to small businesses, monthly small business leadership webcasts, and of course plenty of opportunities to connect through your favorite social channels such as @Office and @OfficeSmallBiz. Search #OfficeSmallBiz on Twitter, join in the conversation, learn and share how your small business is building a social presence from the top down. 

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