TORONTO - Canadian businesses are becoming increasingly active on mediums like LinkedIn and Twitter, but too many remain socially awkward, and it's hurting their bottom line.
"Companies are starting to engage in an authentic way with Canadians and that's leading to increased sales, increased customer service satisfaction and a sense of connectedness," said Ian Capstick, managing Partner at Ottawa-based consulting firm MediaStyle.
"But, let's be honest, not all Canadian companies are quite there yet. You can still find lots of dormant Twitter accounts, websites that aren't updated, store hours on a door front, for instance, that don't match the digital store hours or the ones on Google."
While many businesses may think they're interacting with their customers on social media because they have a Twitter account or Facebook page, experts agree a more strategic plan is needed to really leverage the many available platforms and give companies a proper return on investment.
"People need to tie their social media activities to their overall communications plan, they need to make it part of what they're trying to do," said Lara Wellman of Wellman Wilson Consulting, an Ottawa-based firm that coaches clients in social media communications.
Whether a company's goal is to promote its brand, become a leader in its field, sell ideas or target a new audience, knowing what it wants to achieve will it help map out how to get there, and create the right content to keep followers engaged.
"More and more people know they should be there but they are still very hesitant, or they think that their audience isn't there," said Wellman.
A recent report from Statistics Canada found that small businesses were the least likely of all companies to use the Internet, often because they felt there was no need to do so for their business.
Overall, 38 per cent of enterprises with a website had social media integration in 2013, compared with 33 per cent the year before. Most companies said they used it to direct traffic to their website.
One of the biggest hurdles for new users is concern that they won't know what to post, Wellman said, or that it will take too long to learn to use the technology or to maintain a presence.
That was certainly the case for Eda Doutre, an early childhood educator who runs Kidz Korner, a daycare and indoor play gym west of Toronto.
Despite having a website for years, she only launched a Facebook page and Twitter account for her 18-year-old business in January, after receiving encouragement from a local mom with a background in marketing.
"My target audience is the moms of young children, and they're very social media savvy," said Doutre.
She was nervous to enter the realm of social media, but with the advent of full-day kindergarten for four and five-year-olds across Ontario in September, she knew she needed to reach a broader audience to make up for lost students, and noticed all the moms who frequented her playground were always on their mobile devices and seeking advice online.
"I didn't even grow up with a computer, when I was in high school we were still typing on the old machines," Doutre said. "I knew very little about it (and) there was a time I didn't want to be a part of it."
While she's still finding her footing online, Doutre says she but hopes even small steps will help.
"It's bit by bit," she said.
To Capstick, that's the right approach _ he recommends all companies engage in social media in a way that is sustainable for them.
"You don't always answer the telephone, do you? So you don't always have to be online on your Twitter account, but you do have to have a plan to make sure that you're online enough to ensure that you're deriving the benefit from social media," he said.
There is enough free information on the Internet to get started on the basics, although as a company's communications get more advanced, outside help may be required.
But for firms or small business owners who are just getting started, the first place to look is social media itself.
"It's the open source attitude toward learning - you could use social media for creating content, circulating it and even consuming it," said Umar Ruhi, a social media expert with the University of Ottawa.
"Businesses may be surprised about how (much) specific advice there is for different types of contexts."
Whether business owners use a blog, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or any of the other platforms available to create an online presence and build relationships with clients or prospective clients, experts urge companies of all sizes to find a way to join the conversation sooner rather than later.
"People need to be aware that social is not going away, it wasn't a fad," said Wellman.
"Being online and using it well is important and people need to learn how to do that. You need to know what the business goals are, you need to know what you're trying to do, and then you need to know how those channels are all set up for business and who's actually going to see your message."
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