Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, Foursquare…it’s a dizzying menu, isn’t it? Social media channels are abundant and emerge all the time. One of the questions we’re asked most frequently is, “Which social media platform is right for me and my business?” That’s a great question, really, because it shows you understand two very important concepts: 1) that social media is critical to your success and, 2) that different channels serve different people, and being on too many of them can affect your productivity and results.

Each social media channel has its own audience and purpose. Before you even dive into those details, we suggest you ask yourself the following:

  1. What products or services am I offering? Every business sells something unique.
  2. Who is my audience? Each channel speaks to a different demographic.
  3. What kind of resources can I devote to social media? Signing up is free, but dedication to each channel takes time and, perhaps, even a little cash.
  4. How will social media work into my overall business and marketing plan? It’s great to be social, but you can’t lose your business focus in the process.
  5. Am I prepared to stick with it for the long haul? Establishing a strong, interactive social media presence takes an investment of your time over a sustained period in order to achieve results.

With all that in mind, here are the most popular and effective social media channels for business:

Instagram

Instagram is a free photo-sharing program that allows users to upload (and apply filters to) photos using their Smartphones. Though you can manage your Instagram account using a PC, you can’t upload images that way, so don’t sign your business up for Instagram if you are not willing or able to use your phone for social media.

Since Instagram is a photo-sharing platform, it’s great for products, pictures of staff, and developments within your business. Above other platforms, IG adds human factor to your business. Showing behind-the-scenes images of your business sends a clear “we’re human, too” message your customers that they desperately want.

Experts estimate that between 130 and 150 million users use Instagram. The majority of users (70%) are female between the ages of 18-35.

Snapchat

Snapchat is like Instagram but younger. 60% of Snapchat users in the U.S. are under the age of 24. With more than 100 million users consuming 30 minutes of content every day, it’s a goldmine for businesses targeting young customers. Use Snapchat to create unique video content, release behind the scenes footage, new collections, or conduct interviews with prominent figures to capitalize on this free marketing opportunity and gain a loyal following.

Twitter

Ready to speed things up? Then Twitter is for you. It’s is full of people with lots of things to say RIGHT NOW, and you can respond immediately. But you better, because that’s what Twitter users expect.

Twitter has an estimated 215 million active users. It’s the perfect platform for instantly communicating with people you actually want to communicate with. Each Tweet is limited to 140 characters, so you must be good at getting your point across succinctly. When used correctly, as with breaking news, Twitter is invaluable. Get the hang of hashtags, and you can keep up your followers and be part of the latest trends and newsworthy events.

Twitter is also a great way to connect with your customers, but use caution if you can’t be on it for a good portion of the day. An unsatisfied customer who Tweets a complaint to you, and goes unanswered, is a recipe for disaster. On the other hand, if you have the time to devote to it, Twitter can be your chance to excel at customer service.

Google+

Google+ has 359 million active users a month – far from the ghost town it is popularly believed to be. If you use it properly, you’ll see real results.

Think of Google+ as a combination of Twitter and Facebook. Like Facebook, you need to update your page regularly. Like Twitter, you need to be interactive with your users and other business pages. Immerse yourself in Hangouts and gain +1s, and your pape popularity will skyrocket.

Here’s the real deal with Google+ though: Google+ is Google. If you’re looking for the fast-track to great search engine results, Google+ is key. If you have a Google+ Page and someone searches for your business (even if they don’t follow you), your Google+ Page and its most recent posts will be displayed on the right side of their personal search results. We all know how tough it is to land on page 1 of Google searches. Take the free help.

Pinterest

Here’s a social media channel you should only utilize if you have great images to share. An estimated 70 million (10 million in the US alone) people use on Pinterest, and it’s a fabulous method to gain backlinks to your website. Because of the highly visual nature of the site, quality images have a greater chance of becoming “viral” – that is, shared and re-shared – to thousands of people. An image pinned by a highly-followed Pinterest member has the potential to reach millions of viewers.

Don’t bother with Pinterest unless you can produce quality visual content and at least some good DIY tips. A photography studio with professionally edited images, that shares a blog post on what clothing to wear for a family photo shoot, for example, is a perfect candidate for Pinterest. A local food market with captivating images of its food, that shares a recipe for its newest food offerings, is another. Great images plus a “how-to” or a “checklist” or “step-by-step” guide is what Pinterest users seek.

Beware also of Pinterest’s demographics. The majority of users on Pinterest are women (80%) between the ages of 25-45. If that’s not your target audience, even if you have the images and some DIY tips, skip it.

LinkedIn

Linkedin is the largest social media network for business people and professionals but most small business owners still don’t have it on their marketing radar. That’s a mistake because LinkedIn offers tremendous potential to build relationships and sales leads.

Over 230 million people use LinkedIn, and 2.7 million business pages exist on the platform. It’s like Facebook in that you need to update your page regularly, but it’s far more serious than Facebook. Approach LinkedIn like you would a potential lead at a networking event, not your buddy in the lunchroom. Share serious, professional information.

One of the most powerful features of Linkedin is “Linkedin Groups” which provide a place for professionals in the same industry or with similar interests to start and participate in a discussion within a Group. You can share content, find answers, post and view jobs, make business contacts, and establish yourself as industry experts. Groups can have a hundred to thousands of members, so the exposure is significant.

YouTube

We’ve spoken about the importance using video to reach your customers, and YouTube is a great way to accomplish it. This social media channel is the most popular video oriented site with over 1 billion unique visitors every month, watching over 100 hours of video uploaded every minute. YouTube offers massive marketing potential.

YouTube is the second largest search engine after Google, so having content here that is optimized to be found by someone looking for your product, service, or niche can have enormous benefits. YouTube is also owned by Google, which means that uploaded videos to YouTube boost your SEO ranking. In fact, videos are over 50 times more likely to appear on the first page of Google search results as part of the blended results that Google now shows. If you can show in video how your services, products, and employees are different from all the rest, this social media channel is a winner.

YouTube is really competitive. If you opt for this social media channel, make sure your videos are well-done and invite engagement. Share things users will enjoy. Also, keep in mind that there are costs and human resources involved in producing good videos. If you can do it, great. But don’t do it poorly.

Foursquare

If you have a brick and mortar location – a restaurant, hair salon, spa – Foursquare is a decent option. Its audience is small — just  40 million users and 1.3 million businesses — but recent major updates may breathe new life into it.

People use Foursquare to check into locations they’ve visited by using the app on their mobile phones. Once they’ve checked into a location, it can be shared with their Foursquare friends, Facebook friends, and Twitter followers. Real-time content is shared in the form of reviews. That’s how businesses on Foursquare benefit: friends influence friends. Just keep in mind that you must join the conversation, interact, post images, and reward your most loyal customers in order to be successful on this platform.

Facebook

We saved Facebook for last because of new changes to its algorithm that reduce the visibility of businesses in followers’ news feeds. We’ll cover how to get around that in another post, so certainly don’t abandon your Facebook efforts. This channel has tremendous reach.

Think of Facebook as the social home for your business on the Internet. It’s a place people can go to leave a message, browse through business products and photos, or chat with you online. With so many targeted potential customers, creating a business page is a must, but remember that it needs to be updated on a daily basis with not only promotional information, but engaging and interesting content as well.

An estimated 1.11 billion people use Facebook each month (665 million active users each day). Facebook has been around a long time, proving its popularity amongst users. American women and men between the ages of 25 – 54 make up 32% and 29% of Facebook users, respectively. It’s not for young people (only 9% of users are between the ages of 18 – 24), so rethink your strategy if your customers are young. For such companies, we suggest creating a company Facebook page just to have a presence, provide important contact information, and post some advertising, but not investing any manpower to publish new posts regularly or money to boost posts. On the other hand, if your company targets a slightly older market, Facebook could be very valuable.  44% of users check Facebook several times per day.

Social Bookmarking, Local Search and Review Sites

There are also social bookmarking sites (like Stumble Upon and Digg), as well as local search and review sites (Google Places, Yahoo Local, City Search, and Yelp) that are important for business. We’ll cover those another time.

Is your head spinning? We don’t blame you. The world of social media can seem overwhelming. But just relax, and try to determine which channels are most relevant to your business given the facts given about each and the questions we asked you to consider at the beginning of this article. Remember, don’t sign up for every social media channel just because it’s free. It is far better to be excellent with one or two channels than mediocre at five or six. As we say, less can be more.