The best way to sell through social media, says Bryan Kramer, CEO of the Silicon Valley-based digital agency Pure Matter, is not to sell at all - at least for quite a while. "Social media marketing has helped to highlight that relationships are an iterative process, and they don't happen overnight," he says. "The most common mistake in social sales is to sell rather than listen...You need to provide value many times before you will start seeing the benefits of your engagement." In other words, social media is a powerful sales and marketing tool, but it's important to recognize you're playing the long game: Going for a quick sale will only backfire. Here are Kramer's best tips for middle market leaders seeking to drive sales through social media marketing.

social media marketing

Listening comes first. "First and foremost," says Kramer, "you have to look at every relationship on social as long term." And if you're building a real relationship with your customers, the best starting place is to listen. What questions are they asking? What are the problems or frustrations they're expressing? You can use a variety of social listening tools (as discussed in "How to Become a Social Business") to understand "the unique needs of an individual, and [respond] to them on their level," says Kramer.

Focus your efforts. Given the wide range of social media marketing platforms - from Facebook to LinkedIn, and Tumblr to Instagram - many companies find themselves overwhelmed. "Most of the time I find that companies are challenged by using too many social platforms," says Kramer. "Just getting a core set working is sometimes enough." First, understand where your customers are. If you're a yarn company, Pinterest is mandatory; if you sell industrial equipment, you can probably skip it for now. Second, think about the size of your team handling social media and how much they can realistically handle. That, he says, will "dictate the number of platforms to use in order to be truly successful and uphold the brand on all of them." 

Share your thought leadership. In order to get customers (or potential customers) to want to interact with you, you need to provide real value - and that means creating "the thought leadership content in order to be seen as a trusted source," says Kramer. That could mean blogging (or creating a podcast or video blog), for which you should never charge, or perhaps a more in-depth e-book or webinar (for which, Kramer says, it's often OK to request a customer's email address).

Don't be afraid to sell - when the time comes. Finally, he says, just because you shouldn't usually sell directly online doesn't mean that you never should. "Direct selling is the biggest put-off to any social engagement," he says. The exception, however, "is when someone directly asks to be sold. If I ask for people to provide me with a good referral for a painter to paint my house, I expect to be sold. Social listening provides the strongest ability to spot the people asking for help for a service or product you may provide."

You should never go into social media marketing with the thought of making a quick buck. But over time, the results can be powerful. "We work with a $200 million commercial construction company in Silicon Valley that started doing social media a year ago," says Kramer. "The benefit came after six months of simply sharing their stories on Facebook. One of the projects they highlighted caught the attention of a prospect, resulting in a $10 million-plus project." Even if you don't land a major sale right away, keep at it, he says: "While a direct response like this is great, it's often more common for social to be the tipping point for making a decision and nurturing them through the sales process." That extra nudge at the close can be valuable for any middle market company.

Dorie Clark is an NCMM contributor and a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.