I was chatting with a friend today who interviewed a potential client. The client stated that they were planning on launching their product in March and were looking at starting their social media presence. ​Immediately alarm bells began to ring in my (and her) heads. This was a client who had no idea about social media and the work that was involved in creating a truly vibrant community. So how long should a social media campaign be? How long does it take for you to create a loyal following?

​Firstly, before you even think about running a social media campaign, you have to understand social media. For years the only way to have contact with your audience was through a one-way street. You, your brand, would simply be talking to them, your customer, through a variety of mediums such as television or newspaper adverts. The customer would have little or no chance to respond to this medium and they would simply sit there and absorb your message. If they happened to like what they see (i.e. a sale or new product) then they would take a trip down to your store and purchase what they wanted. These advertising methods still work wonders and are immensely popular. However social media is a completely different ballgame.

Social media is a two-way street. You can, and should, talk to your customers and they can talk right back to you. Brands that have spent a lifetime nurturing their name and reputation (i.e. Coke or McDonalds) ​have an enormous about of clout in the offline world. That clout can easily be transferred online. The hundreds of millions of Coke customers inherently trust Coca-Cola because they have spent their lives drinking their product and can attest to how good it is. They have an existing relationship with Coca-Cola that stretches back to their childhood. This is not so for a start-up. Your relationship with your customer has to start from the ground up. You have no history with your customer and, quite simply, they don’t trust you.

Social media is all about engagement, relationships and listening. If your startup is aiming to bring a new organic drink to the market then you’re already in a space that’s filled with competitors, some who have been doing this for years. But where do you begin? How long does it take to form these relationships? Well…quite simply it can take months. ​

Let’s look at the example of an organic drink. ​Your start-up has a fantastic idea but it’s nowhere near the final stages yet. You’ve got the money from your Angel Investor and have begun to test the different types of fruits and vegetables that should go into your  drink. This is exactly the time that you should start your push into social media. Whilst you’re not going to be releasing your product for at least six months you can still start to build up your fan base and get them excited.

“But I don’t have a product” you say. Well, no….you don’t. You don’t have a product but you have an audience who would want your product when it’s released. There are scores of fitness junkies and food conscious people whose lives revolve around eating organic and healthy meals. This is where you begin to curate your community. You start by creatively targeting them with articles, pictures, videos and other content that all relate to healthy living. This fosters engagement. They, and their friends, will ‘like’ your Facebook page because there is content that interests them. Over the course of the creation of your product you can show some ‘behind the scenes’ pictures or interviews with your ‘Chief Heatlh-food-ologist’ who explains the benefit of organic living. Maybe you should even run a contest asking your Facebook fans to help name one of your products. This makes the community feel that they own a part of the product, that they’ve helped bring it to market. Eventually, when your product does ship, it will do so to a waiting, and excited, audience who will jump at the chance to try it out. This is leveraging the power of social media in an inexpensive, but time consuming, way.

To create a solid community, especially for a product that does not exist yet, ​you need to set aside months, not weeks, of time and resources. Building a community from scratch takes a lot of work but the rewards are great, you will have a loyal fan base of customers who are ready to spread the word about your product. But don’t be fooled into thinking that because social media is an instantaneous means of communication that a community will simply spring forth from the ground. It takes work, it takes time and it takes effort. Give yourself a minimum three to six months to help build your community. Form relationships with your customers. Make them trust you. We’re no longer in an age where brands can simply announce their products and expect people to walk in and buy them. Your customers will support you, if you work at it.