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A plethora of options from business cards to billboards and everything inbetween.

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Social media, when used correctly, can be a great asset to your organization. Whether your organization is commercial or non-profit, legacy or start-up, the ability to directly connect your organization with supporters can build loyalty and a stronger customer relationship than ever.

Social media, like any other tool, needs to be used properly to maximize its performance. Here we will review 10 key ways that successful organizations apply social media plans for the best results and profit.

1. Set Your Strategy

There are three reasons why you shouldn’t start using social media platforms without a plan.

First, your parents’ advice about thinking before you speak definitely holds true in social media, because what you say in cyberspace can and will be remembered (and recalled) for a long time.

Thinking before you speak or otherwise engage people on the Internet is also important because it takes a long time to build good relationships but just a few ill-chosen words to damage a relationship irreparably. This is reason number one why you should have a strategy in place for social media.

Second, you need to know what your overall message will be. This is just business common sense—if you have a marketing and advertisement strategy in place already, you don’t want to throw a wrench into it and start delivering another message entirely. The strongest message is the most coordinated message.

Third, it’s very important to recognize that like most technology, tools will change, and often very quickly. Many social media networks could be obsolete in a year’s time, or less. That’s the nature of technology.

This is why it’s critical to craft a plan that delivers a message or set of messages that you want to convey and then push those messages out on the platforms where your customers are. If that platform happens to be only Twitter, then fine. But you need to open the conversation to your customers on whatever sites they are using.

2. Research Your Audience

It’s the age-old problem for business owners: in order to sell to customers, you have to first find customers. In pre-electronic times, it was simpler: hang a sign out on a storefront, and if your products and services were good and your prices fair, then the customers would come through the door.

Today, it’s harder. With more competition and customers spread out all over town, or even the world, it’s harder than ever to find people with whom to do business. But not impossible.

First, leverage the knowledge of people and organizations that have been in your shoes. They’re the experienced ones, the thought leaders and knowledge managers of your particular interest or business sector.

Also, seek out people who will have a direct connection to or interest in your efforts.

Just asking your customers what social media platforms they use should be the first mode of discovery. A lot of business owners assume that there’s some special trick to figuring out where their customers reside online. And while there are some ways to find this information on your own, you can do the easy task first and simply ask.

Be proactive, too; it’s important to advertise that you are on the Internet, ready to be followed.

Use the social media platform’s own tools to find out who’s on that platform. All you usually need are the email addresses of your customers to conduct such a search.

3. Join Conversations

At first, you might be tempted to simply broadcast all that you think is great about your organization—its product, its people, its brand—all the qualities you love about your company. That’s a common place to start, but understand that if you keep doing that, the novelty will wear off quickly.

Remember, this is always a conversation, no matter what type of social media platform you’re working with. That means it can’t be a one-way broadcast of just the aspects of your business you find interesting. Be prepared to engage your audience, just as you would if they were customers in your store.

When you do this, you will tap into the main value of social media: you’re holding a conversation with someone, but everyone else can listen in.

If the conversation ends well, people will look at this and think that you must have a business that’s interested in the needs of its customers.

Meanwhile, offer compelling points of interest so that people will want to converse with you. This might be content on your blog or other social outlet, but it won’t be a broadcast because that would be counter-productive. You will need to strike a balance between talking and listening, with the understanding that people will mostly want to learn from and listen to you but will expect to be heard when they do have something to tell you.

4. Find the Right Tools

A big reason we haven’t seen a lot of business tools integrated into social media platforms yet is because it’s not easy implementing a transaction system that is safe and secure within an environment that was not designed for ecommerce. Social networks are great for conversations, but not so great (yet) at ecommerce.

This is about to change. There are tools that that will create a tighter integration between social conversation and commerce online. Many major corporations are working to make social commerce happen very soon.

Social media platforms are all about open information distribution. This is problematic when it comes to your financial information. “Open” and “financial data” aren’t two terms that mix particularly well. PayPal plans to be right at that intersection by being a layer of protection for your financial information online, regardless of the medium for the transaction — traditional Web ecommerce sites or social media platforms.

Beyond social commerce tools, apply the right tools for your social media content management. There are a great many tools to manage multiple social media accounts on more than one social media platform. HootSuite and TweetDeck are good examples of tools in this category.

5. Create Relevant Content

One great way to figure out the most relevant content is to determine what your visitors want when they come to your company ecommerce site, blog, or social media site.

As users look for information that’s relevant to them and your organization, they will plug search terms into their favorite search engine and find the content they seek. If your content is a match, your site will be prominently displayed in the search results.

These organic searches will help you figure out what content is most interesting to your visitors, and what will likely be interesting to them in the future. This is search engine optimization 101: tailoring your content to attract the attention of the audience and customers you want. Using these kinds of SEO analytics can be of great assistance in creating your social media conversations.

Listen to other conversations in your topic area of interest, too. Knowing what others are interested in will give you a pretty clear picture of how to jump in on the conversation.

6. Use Rich Media

Producing content of great interest to others is all well and good. But what if you could go further, and actually encourage users to contribute new and original content of their own?

This is what is known as organic content: content contributed by users is not only a feature of social media sites but is also a prerequisite.

There are several ways to encourage users to contribute content to your social media channels. One manner is through rich multimedia content, which has become very easy to produce these days, and is an effective way to get participation. Use polls, images, and video to get your audience involved in the conversation.

7. Listen to Customers

Once you locate these conversations, see what they’re saying. What’s the hot topic right now? Is it directly related to a product or service you provide? How is the tone of the discussion?

These are concepts that you will need to note as you listen to the conversation. Hold off on responding for a bit; wait a few days to get the gist of the discussion.

For instance, are your peers in the conversation? What are they saying? You don’t necessarily want to parrot them, because you’ll sound like someone who’s just a “me too” sort of chatterer. Listen to what’s being said and by whom. You may find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with a lot of ideas, so you’ll want to take the time to figure out what you’re going to say and to whom.

Another use of social media channels is to utilize them as a direct customer service conduit to your customers. If you are a smaller company, this is an ideal way for customers to get their questions asked and answered.

That’s because even though phone calls and email still work, many customers find it more satisfying to complain in a fully public forum, where not only the company will hear their complaints but other people will as well. This gives the customer a sense of accountability from the organization, and any organization that ignores such questions and comments would be foolish.

As part of your work in social media, you must be ready to monitor social media for such questions, and then answer them as promptly and completely as possible. This is not to say you have to drop everything to get to them, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to check in during lulls in your day. If you have a dedicated customer service team already, you should definitely assign resources to monitor social media channels and respond to questions.

8. Build Community

The common error in community building is putting the organization’s welfare before the community's welfare.

When building a community with social media, you must put the community first and enjoy your business payoff later. An online community can help foster brand loyalty, build self-driven customer support groups, and even help create a better product—all benefits that can greatly improve your bottom line.

A sincere effort must be applied to the community you’re trying to create, because community members can spot blatant marketing a mile off, and when they do, they will assuredly leave you alone.

When you start any community, you must define goals for community members. They need to be able to do something, because no matter how much they love the product, they will not participate in the community for long if nothing draws their participation.

9. Collaborate with Your Audience

Social media can also encourage collaborative efforts that can benefit your organization.

Your customers might know a lot about things you know nothing about. Working together, then, can help you tap into their expertise, and can also enable them to tap into yours. The outcome of such collaboration is to create something that is better than what you could do separately.

Your clientele are very smart about what they want and need . . . you just have to tap into their ideas and find out.

10. Measure Your Results

There are quite a few social media metrics that you can begin tracking right away. Some of the most effective analytics derive directly from Web media as the findings show how social media drives traffic to your website, where users may become buyers on your ecommerce site.

Even if you don’t sell products and services on the Web, you can still use these metrics, because you can track in-bound traffic to your business by monitoring how many people send you emails based on your social activity, or fill out the “contact us” form on your website.

These metrics include user leads, page bounces, network size, and online mentions. Blogs fall into a unique position within social media metrics because they are social media platforms in and of themselves, as well as great generators of social media conversations.

That is a lot of social media data that you can gather for your business, but gathering data alone is not enough. You have to apply that data to measuring the achievement of specific goals.

Measuring the true impact of your social media activity is not going to be a simple matter of tracking one or two statistics and then calling it done. You will need to compile different sets of data and use them in combination to determine the intent of your audience and how you can enhance the conversation as well as achieve your business goals.