Shashi Bellamkonda has an unusual job title: Social Media Swami. It’s hardly surprising he wrote a blog post about it. After all, do you know anyone else who can put Social Media Swami on their CV?

A swami, he explains, is “the people’s man (or woman) in the king’s court”. In Shashi’s case, he is the customers’ man inside his company, seeing they are listened to and looked after.

His more formal title is Senior Director of Social Media at Web.com, based in Jacksonville, Florida. Web.com is the parent of Network Solutions, a company helping small businesses establish an online presence and conduct online marketing. Shashi led Network Solutions into the world of social media, established the company’s online presence through its well-respected blogs, and now heads up the social media team. He also blogs, speaks at events, teaches as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, Washington D.C., and writes. He publishes several Paper.lis and knows a thing or two about the food sector, having been a chef and hotel manager (nowadays he blogs about food, especially curry, at Carryoncurry).

Shashi BellamkondaShashi has a string of awards and honours for his work as a champion of small businesses, including as winner of a Washington Business Journal 2012 Minority Business Leader Award. He is one of the Washingtonian’s Top 100 Tech Titans and was given a Small Business Influencer Award in 2011. For the full story of Shashi’s career — from chef to product manager to swami — see his LinkedIn profile.

All of this makes him ideally qualified to tell small businesses how to get started in social media — so that was the first question I asked.

Where do small businesses start?

The numbers on social media are huge and growing, so don’t think of it as something you can put off. There are four steps you need to take, so first…

1. Listen to your customers
Whatever time you have allocated to marketing, you start by listening to the conversations taking place online. If customers were calling you, you wouldn’t say “I’m not going to pick up the phone because I don’t have time”, would you? So you need to know what they are saying in social channels.

You need to know who’s talking about your business, who’s talking about your competitors, and who’s talking about your local community. You can use listening tools like Paper.li or Google Alerts to follow the conversations. Set up whichever tool you prefer for your business name, your product and your competitors. Once you have heard what they’re saying, it’s time to…

2. Engage with them
I’m going to use the example of a restaurant because I used to be a chef. So imagine you come across a customer who’s said something good about your restaurant on his blog. Imagine how much you can involve him by commenting, thanking him and saying “let me know when you are in again”. You can take advantage of many, many opportunities like this.

A great tool for managing your social media activity is postling, so you don’t have to be 24/7 on Facebook or Twitter. Allocate some time during your day for monitoring. Here’s a post I wrote about this. Once you’re listening and engaging, the next step is to…

3. Contribute some helpful information
Let’s say you’re a plumber and one of the things you get asked every day is, “how can I stop leaks happening?” So write a post on your blog about how to stop leaks happening. This is showing thought leadership and no matter what business you are in you can show it.

You might say you’re not confident writing articles. In that case, hire a good writer: Bill Marriott, (head of Marriott hotels) has a great blog but he doesn’t literally write it — he tells his story and someone transcribes it.

4. Build your community
Shashi B's curryYou’ve felt the pulse of your customers so now you know what they want. The next step is to integrate your traditional marketing with social. Let’s take the restaurant example again. You check your bookings and see you could use some business during a certain period. So you decide to use your email newsletter to send a money-off coupon.

You can use this opportunity to build up your community — you tell everyone on Twitter and Facebook that you’re sending out a special offer in the email newsletter today and, if they’re not already subscribed, go in and do so.

You continue to take all these steps — listening, engaging, being helpful, and reaching out to your community and this way you receive new leads from people who are truly interested in being customers. Here’s the post I wrote about this topic.

How does your company engage with its customers?

We have a small business online community made up of resources and places to network. We try to help with small business’s challenges, questions and concerns.

We monitor what customers are saying about all our brands (Network Solutions is one of three brands within Web.com) and respond to them. We create a lot of resources for small business, thought leadership articles and blog posts designed to help them find specific resources.

We have three blogs:

We talk more about small business than about ourselves, so they’ve become centres of best practice. Women Grow Business was listed by Forbes as one of the 20 top marketing and social media blogs and it is also on Pink’s top 10 list. We get linked a lot by mainstream media because our content is high quality.

The commercial value of this is that, if you do enough good things in life, people will come along and buy your products.

You’ve been using Paper.li both to listen and engage. Can you tell us more about that?

Sure. I talk about this in a post I wrote about content curation tools, including Paper.li. So much content is being created that you could be a slave to your electronic device unless you find ways to filter it.

Let’s take The GrowSmartBiz — Small Business Daily. I can get Google Alerts for news on small business, but the Daily is set up to tell me what my community is talking about — things that I might otherwise be missing.

Paper.li is a good way to get a snapshot of what is being said on a topic by people you know and trust. I find it very customisable because you can select links from your Twitter feed or followers, links from hashtags or specific keywords, or links from Twitter lists created by you or others. It avoids having to read hundreds of tweets, or Facebook or Google+ updates.

I see it as having different uses for different kinds of businesses. I use it for listening, but it’s also good for tweeting out the helpful information I was talking about earlier.

Shashi B in travel and tourism mode

Let’s take an example of a small business engaged in travel or tourism here in Washington D.C. Cherry blossom is a big event here with the National Cherry Blossom Festival. So create a Paper.li with cherry blossom as the theme and use it to draw attention to yourself. Going back to the restaurant, there could be a special offer for the period.

Take advantage of local events — see what’s coming up. After the cherry blossom season, it could be Labor Day, so you start your Paper.li with a Labor Day theme.

We can feel your passion for small business! What is it that fascinates you about it?

Recently I was at the White House for a small business event and I heard that American universities are now offering enough guidance and knowledge for people to think about starting a small business as a viable career alternative.

This is exciting, because it can only mean more innovation. Innovation starts in small businesses, and then they grow up and become much bigger businesses. If you look at Apple, Dell, or Network Solutions, we were all small businesses first.

What is also exciting is the opportunity for people to follow their dream; in a small business you can do that.

Photo credits: main picture of Shashi (left) with Rohit Bhargava from Shashi’s flickr stream. Rohit is a marketing expert and the best-selling author of Personality Not IncludedRohit’s bio here.

Photo of Shashi at work: Joelogon; curry photo uploaded to Pinterest by Toono Yamada; holiday snap from Shashi’s Pinterest boards.

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