Small business owners have about a zillion things to do each day – and social media is not usually at the top of the priority list. However, the smart, effective use of social media is essential to building a business’s brand, connecting with potential customers, fostering customer loyalty, and even resolving customer complaints.Sadly, social media is no field of dreams for most small businesses. Just because you build it doesn’t mean that followers, likes and re-tweets will come. It’s not uncommon for a small business’s Facebook page or Twitter account to languish due to lack of content, reports Forbes. You need to be sharing interesting, meaningful and relevant content that gives folks a reason to follow your business.Is “social media” still sitting on your to-do checklist because you’re just not sure how to get started? These five tips will help guide you in the right direction:#1: Start with a plan.Social media is one of those things that most small businesses know they need to do, but are not quite sure how to find the time to actually do it – or even know where to begin. Putting together a concrete plan ensures you tackle social media to-do tasks with actionable steps. Start by focusing on growing one or two accounts. Determine which accounts to use by finding out which sites your customers or prospective customers currently use and where your business could add value. For example, if you provide a specialized B2B service, your prospective clients will want to access your white papers and blog posts via LinkedIn. On the flip side, if you own a boutique women’s clothing store, Instagram and Pinterest are two perfect platforms for sharing beautiful product images.#2: Be consistent.Consistency matters: you’ll want to plan out your posts at least a week in advance and post regularly throughout the week. So, just how often should you be posting? There’s a fine line between cultivating genuine engagement and bombarding followers with a barrage of self-promotional tweets. Establishing and maintaining a social media presence is a two-way street: you need to post regularly and also comment/interact with followers. Post questions and offer thoughtful responses. If you are new to social media, start with a follower-based network like Twitter, where you can also follow other companies and industry experts, in addition to building your own following. Don’t just re-tweet useful posts; add your own commentary to the conversation based on your experience. This will naturally raise your business’s profile by establishing your company as a thought leader and building your own follower base.#3: Be real.Today’s savvy customers know the difference between PR-speak and authentic connection. Don’t be afraid to inject a little humor and personality into your posts. Take a little time to learn about your target audience so you can write engaging, relevant posts that offer genuine value to followers. On the flip side, be careful not to go overboard with personal opinions. If you’re commenting on industry trends, for example, be sure to back up your opinions with facts.#4: Review analytics and optimize accordingly.Social media dashboards offer a variety of useful analytics, including post engagement (e.g., how many people viewed, liked or commented upon a post). Search Engine Land also recommends tracking social media referral traffic to your website.. To assess genuine engagement, compare the bounce rate between social media traffic and search engine traffic. Where do social media visitors go when they reach your website? Do they download your latest white paper or complete a purchase? Understanding social media engagement and traffic flow will help you be smarter about the types of content you post.#5: Work smarter, not harder. Social media management companies take the headache out of managing multiple accounts, developing campaigns and monitoring your social media reputation. One option is a free or low-cost social media dashboard, like Hoot Suite, which you can use to pre-schedule posts in advance, track engagement analytics, and more. And while social media dashboards are great for streamlining day-to-day management, you’ll still need someone dedicated to producing great visuals and written content.Social media management companies can help make this process easier. $99 Social, for example, charges a flat monthly rate for individualized content creation crafted specifically for your business, including custom-branded visuals, along with a dedicated account manager to help you consistently establish your relevance and credibility as a small business. Sociallybuzz is a social media management company that’s great for small businesses who need to build customer loyalty and manage their reputation on Google Places, Yelp and Urbanspoon.Some companies, like Fity Social Media, also offer paid social media campaign advertising on Facebook and other networks; however, these services can be expensive. Fity Social Media’s most basic package starts at $299 per month, which may be a bigger investment than small businesses are ready to make. All three companies can also develop social media campaigns around product releases, grand openings, and other promotional events. If you’re considering partnering with a social media management company, ask about a 30-day trial period or promotional period so you can test out the services before making a long-term commitment.