Editor’s note: Steve Henke is president of Harpeth Marketing, a Franklin, Tenn., marketing firm providing consulting and outsourced marketing services in the market research industry. He can be reached at 615-415-3980 or at steve@harpethmarketing.com.

I’ve been a marketing guy for the majority of my 30-year professional career and the evolution of the marketing discipline during that time has been nothing short of astounding. Think back: mass media advertising… then direct mail… then the Internet and banner ads… then e-mail marketing… pay-per-click ads… and now social media.

Social media has become mainstream and the options seem endless: Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Reddit, StumbleUpon and literally hundreds of other platforms. Even though social media has been around for a while, it’s surprising how poorly it’s being used by so many people. Success in the socialsphere isn’t especially difficult but it does require some effort, discipline and a little time. In fact, I believe you can be pretty good at it in about 30 minutes a day. Here’s how.

First, where to start? Understand that with all of the choices available, you can’t be everywhere, so let’s look at the platforms that are most appropriate for marketing research firms: blogging, LinkedIn and Twitter. If you have a Facebook page, Google+ or even a YouTube channel, that’s great. Keep it up! But if you’re just starting – or restarting – your social media efforts, I’d recommend beginning with those three.

As you look at your 30-minute window, there are essentially four distinct activities you can perform on social sites: connecting, researching, posting and engaging.

Connect: five minutes

Start your daily social time reaching out to others with whom you’d like to connect.

  1. On LinkedIn, there’s a built-in invitation tool but please don’t use the generic invitation text that it comes with. Spend a few seconds writing one that’s unique. My favorite places to start are “People You May Know” and members of the groups I belong to.
  2. On Twitter, the best way to get others to follow your feed is to follow them first. Very quid pro quo. To find those you want to follow, look under the appropriate hashtags (e.g., #mrx, #cpg, etc.).
  3. The third option is to use LinkedIn to ask one of your contacts for an introduction (through LinkedIn) to one of their contacts.

Consider this: If you were to make just three new connections a day (which you can easily do in five minutes), do the math and think about where you’ll be six months or a year from now!

Research: five minutes

Once you’re done connecting, it’s time to do a little research to see what’s going on with your clients, your competitors and in the industry.

  1. Assuming you’ve joined the appropriate LinkedIn groups and signed up for daily e-mails, scan through those e-mails to look for any interesting posts and who posted them.
  2. Check out the Twitter feeds of your top clients and competitors, either directly or using some industry-wide hashtags. Three that I like in MR are #mrx, #marketresearch and #newmr.
  3. And though it’s not a social platform, part of my 30 minutes each day involves reading my Google Alerts. If you’re not familiar with it, Google Alerts is a free search tool that scours the Internet looking for posts that match your search terms and returns the results via e-mail digest. My search phrases include my clients’ names, my competitors’ names, key marketing terms and even my own firm.

Post: 10 minutes

What do you want to say to the world? Here are a few guidelines for the three platforms.

Blogging. Think about your blog as a place to post ideas and suggestions, industry observations and visionary kinds of things.

Twitter. You can’t say much in 140 characters but I find this to be a great vehicle for sharing relevant content (i.e., articles, etc.) that I find elsewhere online.

Note: I use Google Alerts to help me find that content.

LinkedIn. Use your personal and company profiles to post updates of some significance – a new product or service, new publication, awards, new hires, etc. Use the LinkedIn groups to post a question/comment that you hope will start a dialogue or when you need specific information (e.g., Can anyone recommend a focus group facility in Rochester, N.Y.?)

Note: If you’re blogging, you’ll need to block off a little time in addition to the 30 minutes of social time for the actual writing.                                                                                                                                        

Engage: 10 minutes

With the time you have remaining, jump in and participate in online conversations. This where what you give balances out what you get.

Blogging. Look at your blog posts and respond to anyone who has commented on your posts.

Twitter. Are there any tweet threads in which you can participate?

Note: These have become especially popular as part of conferences (e.g., for The Market Research Event in Nashville last month, the active thread was #TMRE13).

LinkedIn. In the groups you belong to, answer a question or participate in a threaded conversation.

Sharing others' comments that you find particularly interesting or beneficial is also recommended. You can retweet a Twitter post, Like a post on LinkedIn or use the share icons on a blog to send it around.

The key is not to be salesy but to provide useful and valuable information that others might find beneficial. Do that and you not only build awareness for you and your firm but you also help to position yourself as a subject-matter expert based on the quality of your comments.

And that’s how to spend 30 minutes in the socialsphere.

There are rules

But before you get started on your own, consider this: If the four elements above are the “what” to do in social media, they must be guided by the “how.” There are rules – some written, some not – that should be followed.

  1. Keep your comments professional. No one cares that you had a latte at Starbucks this morning. And don’t start conversation threads with questions like, “If marketing research were an animal, what animal would it be?” Ugh!
  2. When you have something of value to share on your Web site (e.g., an article or case study), use social media to push people to it.
  3. Selling is generally frowned upon but what’s really bad is being duplicitous about it. For example, don’t post a comment about “8 ways to improve your moderating skills” (sounds like a worthwhile article, right?) but then link to a training workshop. Social media is also about authenticity.
  4. Social media is just one weapon in your marketing and sales arsenal – it should never be your only marketing vehicle. Social should always be part of an integrated approach that includes a variety of other strategies and tactics.
  5. You can’t be everywhere all the time. With literally hundreds of social media sites, the choices can be overwhelming. Don’t worry about it! Pick two or three and focus on them. Better to be really good at a few than halfhearted with 10 or 12.
  6. In addition to your 30 minutes each day, allocate a few more minutes once a week for measurement. You want to track three things:
  • growth in the number of your connections/followers/etc.;
  • the level of engagement (e.g., are people retweeting your tweets and Liking your posts?); and
  • conversion (i.e., are people linking from your social media posts back to your Web site or other destinations?).
And the No. 1 rule for social media marketing: Be consistent! Nothing is more underwhelming and unimpressive than visiting someone’s blog, only to see that there have been no posts in the last three months. Or someone with a year-old Twitter account has only tweeted 10 times. Set reasonable activity goals and use your 30 minutes a day to reach them. Remember, that’s 30 minutes a day – every day!

Watch what happens

When you commit to social media marketing for 30 minutes a day as part of an overall marketing initiative, watch what happens. Your network of connections will expand and your activities will build on each other. You’ll learn as you participate in online conversations and keep an eye on industry trends and your competitors. Your reputation will grow as a subject-matter expert, as well as someone who shares and cares. And then, finally, people (read: prospective clients) will begin to seek you out.

Good luck and good marketing.