• There are more than 2.3bn users of social media, 31% of the world’s population
  • A vast opportunity for small and medium sized enterprises
  • Social media levels the playing field between big brands and smaller businesses
  • This start-up guide shows small businesses how to connect with potentially millions of new customers

In the past only the largest firms with vast marketing budgets could reach billions of people. Now anyone can do it, thanks to the global growth of social media.

This is a significant opportunity that, if managed correctly, can transform today’s back-bedroom start-up into tomorrow’s global business. Here are 10 pointers to help you reach out beyond your home market.

1) Audit competitor activity

Start by looking at what your rivals are already doing in a geographic area that is new to you, ideally a similar company from your country that has already launched social media activity in this new territory. Look at what it has done so you can learn from its successes and avoid its mistakes. Alternatively, look at similar entrants from different countries, or at entrants from your own country offering different products or services. You will still learn much from both approaches. Finally, build up a clear picture of existing competitors in your new target market so that you can see where there is an opportunity for you to differentiate yourself.

2) Select the most suitable social platform

According to research published in January 2016 by GlobalWebIndex, in the Philippines more than 90% of internet users had visited Facebook in the past month, while in Japan under 20% had done so. Meanwhile, in Mexico the most popular social platform was video-centric YouTube, while in China QZone and WeChat led the way.

In the UK, most SMEs focus on Twitter, Facebook and perhaps LinkedIn for B2B outreach. These are just a few examples of how a platform’s popularity can vary country by country. So, when looking to communicate with consumers overseas, research the most suitable platforms and prioritise which to use for your approach.

3) Create relevant content

Bear in mind that the articles, videos, infographics, product demonstrations and so on that you use successfully in the UK may not have the same impact overseas. So, be prepared to spend time creating new content, for instance creating alternative infographics that make each country’s local data the star and consider whether translating text (professionally) would make an impact.

And consider carefully which channel to use; will text, or rich media – which means using a variety of dynamic content, for instance video – work best in this market? What technical capabilities do social media users have in the area you are targeting?

4) Understand cultural norms

Greig Holbrook, Founder of digital marketing firm Oban Digital, says: “There is often an assumption that because a marketing strategy works in one country or with one audience it will be as effective in others – the one-size-fits-all approach.” But before you begin any overseas social media activity, invest time in understanding cultural sensitivities so that you fit as well into your new market as you do at home.

Earlier this year, for instance, Coca Cola posted a New Year’s greeting in the form of an illustrated map on VK, the largest social media platform in Russia. The map first caused outrage because it didn’t feature a number of disputed territories. When the company posted a new version that included those, this angered another contingent of users who then called for a boycott. Coke decided to delete the item. Says Greig Holbrook: “Whether this has affected sales in the country it is not yet known, but a greater understanding of the region and the political tensions would surely have prevented causing such offence.”

5) Integrate with your brand

Tools such as Passport to Trade 2.0 – a guide to successful social media engagement across 31 countries produced by the University of Salford – will help you be sensitive to local nuances, but you also need to ensure that your social media presence remains true to your core brand.

Social should never be a “stand-alone” activity. It must always sit coherently within broader brand messaging. Coincidentally, Coca Cola is regularly cited as a text-book example of a company that successfully transmits a consistent message across a wide number of platforms, using its distinctive red colour, key slogans, emphasis on bold photography and social media’s inherent interactivity to reinforce the positive spirit of its brands.

6) Use scheduling tools to avoid time-zone issues

Your target market may be on the other side of the world but that is no reason either for your social media feeds to be asleep while your new target consumers are active, or for you to work around the clock. There are many good, free or low-cost scheduling tools (such as Hootsuite and Buffer) that will let you line up future activity.

7) Integrate with e-commerce

The ultimate goal of all this work is to drive sales and bring revenue into your organisation. That revenue is going to arrive in a different currency, so the sooner you start speaking to a partner who can help you link your social channels into your e-commerce offer – for example, enabling social sign-in to your site – and establish simple, multi-currency checkout, the better prepared you will be.

8) Put in place appropriate resource

It takes time to build up a presence on social. It’s not a direct sales channel so consistency over a period of time is key to building engagement, which brings about the best results. Be prepared to respond on social media platforms to your new customers. Put in place appropriate, trained resource, set realistic targets, and be careful not to engage in any channels where you will struggle to resource the response required.

9) Set up robust evaluation processes

According to the 2015 Social Media Marketing Industry Report, despite the fact that 92% of small businesses agree that social media is important for their business and that the majority use Facebook for their social media marketing, 35% also report that they don’t know whether their Facebook outreach is working.

With any marketing activity it is essential to establish success criteria at the outset, put in place effective tools to measure impact, and then continue to monitor and adapt as needed. With overseas social media activity, because so much of it will be a bit of a step into the unknown, this is especially important.

Social media metrics such as likes, shares, and follows are a useful guide to success in this area. However, the true measure of effectiveness is commercial. Does this activity result in new leads, new sales, new revenue and new profit?

10) Be prepared to invest

Spending on social media advertising has been growing strongly in recent years and is expected to top $35 billion by 2017. That is happening because it is delivering results for companies. So, look into ways you can boost the performance of your overseas social media strategy by investing in ads on the channel. As always with advertising investment, start small, adapt and refine, and then roll out. Targeted ads mean that small businesses are able to reach consumers based on demographics, location, psychographics, behaviour while browsing a website, and purchase history with increasing precision. With billions of active users, social media gives advertisers the opportunity to target their ads to just the people they want to reach.

Alex Blyth is author of Brilliant Online Marketing, published by Prentice Hall