When your business, from a mom-and-pop outfit to a local store, starts using social media, things can be confusing as you move from a personal-use mindset to a sales, marketing or support style of use.

Starting to Do Social

The rough waters of our current economic times might seem perilous for smaller companies, but social media offers a quick, largely free and exciting way to gain and interact with potential customers, increase sales and gain loyalty.

Using a local approach via social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, if you can only reach out to a small market, can bring customers flocking if you have something to sell. If your business makes a product, then reaching out to the world via selling sites such as eBay can bring business from the four corners of the globe.

If your business offers a service, social media can act as a way to introduce them to potential clients. Business-focused social services, such as LinkedIn and local business networks, are ideal ways to expand your contacts and client base.

But none of this is any use if you are unsure of what to say, how to act or what to offer. There are many costly courses out there to train people in the right approach to social media, which midsize companies can afford, but for any smaller business, just using common sense is a good alternative.

Taking Your First Social Steps

Any business can do this, from independent coffee shops to art supply or hardware stores, from a local computer seller to a home-based design agency -- all it takes is a little effort to take advantage of the three big social media sites. Joining Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is free and getting the word out costs nothing.

But there are a few steps to learn before you can go running and shouting your social mouth off. For a start, find a company similar to yours and monitor what they do. Get a feel for how social interaction works and examine what people are prepared to offer, be it discounts, advice, tutorials or comedy, to get some of that loyalty and interaction.

When you've got the lay of the land, signing up to Facebook and Twitter takes about a minute, if you can offer some video content, then YouTube is a great extra to be a part of. Start befriending locals, area companies, social groups and networks. Using Twitter's "Nearby" search is a great way to see who's around. Search for your neighborhood on Facebook "Pages" could dig up all kinds of groups, both serious and fun. Allow some time for people to befriend you, too, and we're ready to go.

Treat Your First Moves as a Relaunch

Knowing what to say and offer is the key to this exercise. Being a little bit brave and imaginative can work wonders. Whatever you do attempt, start with a bang. If it's a shop, have a sale. If you're selling services, announce discounts. If there's a bigger rival nearby, offer to undercut them (for a limited time).

For example, that local coffee shop could start a Twitter account. That allimportant first tweet has to say is "Hi, we're located [here], we offer [this], please drop in and say 'hello.'" As the Twitter account gains in activity, keep things moving with small offers and observations about what else is available/happening nearby. 

Once the shop has enough followers in the area, start offering free extra services -- Wi-Fi (if it doesn’t already), perhaps a book-reading morning, deals with other local stores. Keep up a regular supply of buy-one-get-one-frees and meal deals. In one sweep, you've attracted some technical types, bargain hunters and literary folk, all of whom are likely to spread the word if they have a good experience at the shop. While you might only get a small response at first, it can grow to reasonable proportions quickly.

To keep the ball rolling, ensure you follow anyone who comes along on the social sites and post some photos of the events you have on Facebook. People always like talking about what they do, and will spread your news around their friends. If an event made a bit of a splash in the neighborhood, then send the details to the local paper. If they run a story on their website, then link to that on the social sites. "From small acorns…" as they say.

Anyone with a creative business can make use of YouTube to a similar effect. If you make jewelry or artwork, build models. The simple act of videoing the activity and sharing it can bring about great interest in your business that you can tempt with offers, courses or live demonstrations.

Questions, Harsh Words

Service-based businesses and their customers are becoming used to using social media as a help point. If you start using social media, expect to see queries pop up at any time. Always be ready to answer them. If you can't, reply and tell them when you will have an answer. Imagine they are a customer on the phone or in front of you and follow the same rules and etiquette.

At some point, someone might say something negative (in a review, maybe), nasty, untruthful or crude about your business or products on a social site. The first thing in any instance like this is always (if possible) to turn an angry customer into a happy one. This can be done by either settling their issue, or, if there is a minor flaw in your operation, to fix it and invite them back.

Of course, there are some people out there who are just plain nasty (called trolls, appropriately enough). Most social services allow you to report abuse, if you think their words are serious enough, do what you can to have them banned, or the ultimate sanction -- ignore them.

Remember, It’s a Relationship

Once you have a decent social media gathering, have enjoyed some successful events and are planning your next steps, remember to keep giving back. Merely taking from your audience is a sure way to lose that newly gained custom and start getting negative feedback. Interact by asking people what they want from you, then throw in contests and freebies.

Some people have a natural affinity with social media. Use them as soundboards for new ideas you have, and keep in touch even on a slow day to maintain friendships. As you move through the gears, keep looking to see what others do and say -- use details you pick up as inspiration for your own efforts, but never copy them directly.

Just One More Thing

In a small company, there may be only one person, or a handful of people, capable of running and monitoring your social media. If possible, try to make it a group effort to widen the "voice" that you offer, but always ensure they follow a basic set of rules: Be polite, be honest and only do it if they want to. People who don't want to be involved should never be forced.

From a small starting point, growing your social presence can be both fun and rewarding for the bottom line. Connecting with local or loyal customers can help grow both the business and its customer base and using social media can be more efficient and cheaper than flyers or traditional advertising.

This article solely focuses on using social media on the standard website version, but as you get more messages, there are free apps such as TweetDeck, mobile apps so you can monitor on the go and other services you can use to make your social web easier to manage. And, if it really takes off, business suites can help monitor your business reputation.