Social media marketing has moved out of the realm of “trial and error” and has become a critical component of any online marketing strategy. Cost effective and relatively easy to use, social media has become a favorite tool of marketers.  However, for business owners with limited marketing knowledge and experience, developing a social media marketing plan is often faced with apprehension. They know they need to get involved, but don’t know where to start or what is expected of them.

Are you still afraid of social media? Here are a few basic rules to get your social media marketing underway.

1. Assign a company “voice”

Many marketing professionals squabble over who “owns” social media. PR professionals, SEO experts, copywriters and more all claim they are best equipped to handle a social media marketing campaign. It doesn’t really matter which team you put in charge of your social media, but make sure they have control over all your profiles and activities. Having the same person behind your social media curtain ensures consistency of voice and messaging. You don’t want to confuse your audience with varying social personas across different networks.

And please don’t leave social media to the intern. Just because younger generations may be more comfortable with social networking, that doesn’t mean they have the marketing knowledge or company loyalty to effectively manage your social media marketing campaign.

2. Understand the differences between networks

You have to be on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to start. Fully develop those profiles and learn how you are expected to communicate with users. Each network has a different set of etiquette companies are expected to abide by. What kind of content should you share on each network? How are you supposed to address your target audience? When is the best time to reach out to your connections? How much interaction/promotion is too much? No two social networks are alike. People use different social networking sites for different reasons. You have to tailor your approach to match that.

3. Invest in smaller, niche sites

Once you’ve got a solid foundation on the Big 3 social networks, see what smaller communities you can become a part of. There are hundreds of social networking sites for all kinds of people. Does your company cater to urban cycling enthusiasts? At-home vegan bakers? Pure-breed Labrador rescue organizations? Chances are there is a niche social network for your target audience. While these sites may not have the 600 million users of Facebook, they do provide you with the opportunity to connect directly with your target audience. Size does not equate value.

4. Think before you post

The news is full of social-media-gone-wrong stories (think Anthony Weiner and Weiner-gate). One of the most important things to remember about social media is that it is instantaneous. You might remove a careless Tweet or ill-timed Facebook post, but that doesn’t mean someone hasn’t already seen and shared it. Bad news travels fast and your online reputation can be destroyed in a matter of moments with the wrong social media post. Think before you Tweet/post/share. Ask yourself how your message might be inferred by your audience. You might think it’s funny, but they end up being offended. Don’t become a social media mistake that serves as a warning for others of “how not to.”

5. Your social profiles are not the most important thing

It’s important to remember that social media marketing is not the magic bullet solution to all your online marketing needs. Your website needs to remain at the core of any and all web marketing campaigns. Think of your social profiles as yet another gateway for your target audience to arrive on your site. Your social profiles should encourage visitors over to your site, not the other way around. Why would you want someone to leave your site to Like you on Facebook when you could have encouraged them to convert? Save the most valuable real estate on your website for other functions.