This year, more small businesses have begun to use some sort of social media platform to help market their business. So with all the noise out there, how do you differentiate your company?

Our next SmallBizSat Q&A guest, Ann Handley (@MarketingProfs), tackles this topic and more in her excellent and thoughtful answers. Ann, an expert on content creation, explains that content can be a great differentiator if it’s done the right way.

Q. Do you feel supporting local businesses is important and why?

A. Absolutely – to me, business is about people. So I believe in supporting local businesses and the people who own them, because it helps weave the fabric of the community. But at the same time, I feel strongly about helping local business have a bigger presence – through technology generally as well as social tools. Local doesn’t need to mean “small” anymore.

Q. How can a local retailer or service business use the internet to drive customers through their doors?

A. I swear I didn’t look ahead to this question… (LOL). The web offers near limitless opportunities for local businesses to connect with new customers and deepen relationships with existing ones. But I guess if I had to focus on one way, it would be to create content that tells your story. That means focusing on the value you offer – the thing that you stand for as a business, your point of view, your “mission” – and focusing on creating content (like a blog, a Twitter feed, perhaps a Facebook page) that puts flesh on the bones of your story.

Here’s an example of what I mean: Marcus Sheridan – one of the owners of River Pools and Spas in Virginia – sells in-ground fiberglass pools. But what he stands for, as a business – his “mission,” so to speak – is to be the encyclopedia of pool-buying. He seeks to be the resource (not just a resource – but a definitive resource) that tells the honest truth to anyone thinking about making the considerable investment that is an in-ground swimming pool. He tackles the hard questions no other pool seller generally wants to talk about: like cost, ongoing maintenance, potential problems, and so on. By doing so, Marcus has carved out a presence as someone to trust, as a resource. He’s not just another pool guy. River Pools has a larger story, and its online content reflects that.

Q. When looking at a website of a new business, how do you judge if the business is credible or not?

A. I look for a few things:

  • Is the site being updated regularly (or semi-regularly) with fresh content?
  • Does it have a social presence that tells me who the company is? Is there an actual human or two behind the company name and logo?
  • Do I get a sense of the company’s story by accessing its content – either on the site, or on social channels?
  • If I read the copy or content on the home page, what does it sound like? Does the voice of the company sound like Frankenspeak or uninspired bits of drivel, or is there a sense of real passion and a sense of the people behind the words?

Here’s a test for any business: Mask your logo and tagline on your web site and read the text alone. Do you get a sense of who you are? You probably have a logo that differentiates your business – Have you spent as much time ensuring that your site content is a differentiator, as well? Do you sound different? Or do you sound like everyone else?

Q. If you were working with a local small business owner who’s in the retail space, like a clothing store, a coffee shop, or a restaurant, what online tools would you recommend they use to help market and promote their business?

A. Local stores with a physical presence almost have it easier than strictly online businesses, because they have an opportunity to connect with their customers face-to-face. So certainly I’d look at social-location services like Foursquare or Gowalla, review sites like Yelp, and photo-sharing apps like Instagram. (The latter has become my new favorite app on my iPhone, because it’s a dead-simple content-creating/sharing platform but with amazing artfulness and interesting potential.)

I’d also look to being a resource in the community – either through creating a kind of community hub or by being a service to them. The best local businesses I know are already plugged into community events and local initiatives – they are part of the fabric of the place — but social tools can help expand those efforts. The best local businesses always embrace the idea (as I’ve written in the past) that service is the new selling.

For example, I live in Boston, where we just had a rare pre-Halloween snowstorm that downed power lines and left most of my community without heat or electricity for days. The local public library had power, however, and post-“Snowtober” it tweeted an invitation to residents to come in, warm up and check their email. I didn’t see a lot of local businesses doing the same – but it would have been a great real-time opportunity to serve the community. Smart local businesses would watch for those and other opportunities not to capitalize, but to be a resource.

Q. If you were working with a local small business owner who’s in the service industry, like a lawyer, realtor, or electrician, what online tools would you recommend they use to help market and promote their business?

A. If I ran a service industry, I’d be creating content as a way to differentiate. Specifically, I’d look to use video, because video can make the intangible tangible in ways that text can’t, and can help humanize a faceless company. A fantastic example of a service firm using video effectively is what the Chicago law firm Levenfeld Pearlstein did. Levenfeld Pearlstein took the idea of humanizing professional services marketing to a whole new level by developing a series of attorney website profiles that incorporate video vignettes of lawyers speaking candidly about their professional philosophies and personal viewpoints—showing off their personalities in a creative and wholly unexpected way. (You can read the whole story – Three Things Marketers Can Learn From a Law Firm (Yes, a Law Firm) About  Creating Awesome Content).

Q. What’s your favorite social media tool that a small business should use to promote themselves?

A. I have a bit of a love-hate reaction to this question, because I get this question a lot: Should we be on Twitter? Facebook? Google+? Should we have a blog? Where should we be?

The truth is that the tools don’t really matter. What matters is figuring out a way to tell your story. Use it to connect with customers. Create content that matters. Then, use social tools to expand on and enrich and amplify that story. But it all starts with creating awesome content.

I don’t say “create awesome” lightly, either, because in a world where everyone is creating content as a cornerstone of their marketing – you’ve got to figure out a way to create yours in a way that engages people, that pulls them in. Good content is less about storytelling: It’s more about telling a true story well.

Ann Handley is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs and the co-author of the best-selling book Content Rules (Wiley 2011).

You can also check out our previous interviews from our Small Business Saturday series to find out some of their useful and valuable marketing tips!