The last while I’ve been working with folks whose day to day business focus and expertise are a fair bit less tech-centric than I’m used to. It’s a good mental exercise for me, seeing how the other half lives, and adapting what seems obvious to me about online business development, social strategy, and community building to companies that are not software-centric, for example. You mean you sell actual... stuff?

What I found, however, in working out social strategy for these organizations, was a consistent core. Five key questions the folks at these companies (or any company) need to ask themselves and answer before embarking on creating profiles, establishing groups, tweeting, uploading video, or setting up boards of pins.

It’s certainly possible that the order of importance may shift a bit depending on the company, but so far this order has served well both in terms of what has to be decided when (because the answers to the first questions inform all the others), as well as order of importance to getting social right.

So, where to begin?

Who is our audience?

Audience here refers both to those whose attention you already have, like existing customers or those considering becoming customers, and those to whom social media can help introduce you, like people who are only just starting to have a problem or challenge you can help with, community members, professional partners, influential folks, and industry experts.

Social media can help you get folks’ attention, convince them to opt in to continuing giving it to you, help them do research, keep abreast of goings-on in the community, and lots of other usefulness. And potentially buy from you, of course, but the nice thing is that all those other indirect activities lead to the development of ongoing business relationships, too.

One very common mistake to avoid: your target audience/demographic is not “everyone”. Not even Facebook has “everyone”, and it’s hardly a niche network. Not only do most companies not have the time or resources to target all people, it’s a fact of life that there are those who will have no use for or interest in what you do. And different kinds of people will use different networks and platforms, be drawn toward different kinds of media, and prefer different levels of interaction (with your company and anyone else online).

What content should we publish?

Remember consistency when creating and developing social profiles. Try to use the same username across accounts, keeping brevity in mind. Visual consistency is important, too — give yourself high professionalism and recognition factor with consistent colours, logos, and faces. If multiple people will be managing your accounts, some thought and guidelines as to your organization’s “voice” is a good idea as well, though you still want people to retain their personalities in online activities.

Length and format options for the social web range from tiny tweets to blog post series. People tend to have short attention spans online, though, so 750 words is a good rule of thumb for longer content. Visually breaking things up is important, too. Shorter paragraphs, bullet lists, graphics, etc.

Provide quick visual context as well. There’s a lot of spam out there, so accompany URLs with what's behind them and why you’re sharing. Status updates are short, so get right to what you want to say. Train yourself to be terse and make every word count. People are busy, overwhelmed with content, and have ever-shorter attention spans. Help them out.

The social web isn’t just about talking the talk. Pics or it didn’t happen? Absolutely. Also video, infographics, lists, how-to pieces, commentary, product info, and reviews. Any conversation gets boring if it’s only ever about the same thing. Mix it up online with format length, facts vs. opinions, text and graphics. Note, too, that some sites are about building a solid archive, like YouTube, rather than daily posting. Develop an editorial calendar and brainstorm potential topics and content formats if you have trouble coming up with ideas on the fly.

Beyond the “what”, how often should you post? Be active daily. The shorter the format, the more frequency is acceptable. Balance posting about yourself with other relevant content (interesting stuff from your industry, community, etc.) You’re not just a broadcaster. And interactions don’t count toward quota. Retweet, reply, comment — engage! Respond quickly, be useful, be polite, and never get negative, no matter what the other party’s saying. Behind every raving lunatic is a potential champion waiting to be convinced that you care. (Ok, not every lunatic, but more than you’d think.)

What do we want to accomplish with social efforts?

Not all businesses need the same social presences, to post the same kinds of content, or to interact with people in the same ways. Social isn’t just about playing around online. You’re doing business, so what do you want to accomplish? Get found? Get customers? Be a great resource? There are a lot of potential reasons; just make sure you know which are yours and focus what you do on achieving them.

Social strategy changes over time. You’ll get more comfortable interacting and posting online, you’ll learn where your “right people” are and what niches you can service, and the popular sites and networks will change. You’ll figure out which questions you get asked all the time, and what tactics that worked for competitors you can steal. Change also means stopping what doesn’t work. Could be people you follow, content you publish, or networks where you have a presence. Trying to be everywhere is as much of a waste of time as trying to market to everyone.

You will also start to get a feel for, and likely begin to use tools to back up what you’re seeing anecdotally about your audience, social presences, and content. Where are people coming from? What are they looking for? Who do they represent? What are they reading or sharing? Knowing what has worked or not in the past will help you shape how you do things in the future.

And there you have it. Three key questions to get you started with a solid footing on the social web.

Wait... wasn’t it five key questions? Well, yes, there are five. But I never said I was going to give away all my secrets. :) And I’ve broken my own guideline: this post is well over 750 words already. Plus, the social plans and audits I work on can run to two dozen pages.

In any case, these questions — and your organization’s specific answers and resources — are a good start in helping you figure out where to be, what to say, who to talk to, and why you’re bothering in the first place. And who knows, in addition to growing your business you might just build some great relationships and have some fun at the same time.

For more on social media best practices for small businesses, here's a talk I gave at MaRS in February.

Where, What, Who: Smart social media for small businesses - MaRS Best Practices from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.