So often I speak to people who say that their business social media takes up too much time, or that it falls down the priority list because they (or their superiors) don’t see it as important. Social media is perhaps the single most powerful form of advertising. And it’s free (mostly). It is also an extension of the other most influential type of advertising – word of mouth.

If you think of the hours that can be spent designing and proofing an ad, or putting together a brochure, the time spent on social media is quickly equated. What’s more, the visual instantaneity of social media taps right into our time poor, quick fix approach to life. You only have to walk down the street to see how many people are on a device, and they are more likely to mentally absorb a creative, interesting or informative post or tweet than read a full article (which takes time and concentration). They are also far more likely to click like or share, than call 100 contacts to say they’ve seen a great new piece of machinery or an event they’d like to go to. Already, with the right content, it’s paying for itself.

Appropriately managed, social media is your number one brand ambassador. 91% of brands are social on more than one platform, and it’s essential to ensure a solid online presence. Potential customers will often use social media to research a product over the company’s own website.

Being free, or at worst low cost, social media is a level playing field for a business of any size and actually gives small businesses the means to stand alongside the big boys. Social media allows you to build up a profile and personality, and offering advice, opinion and quick responses to any comments can all build up a loyalty that is much stickier than an ad in magazine. With creative posts, you can also get the edge by demonstrating that you are not just a corporate but a group of people with a shared vision.

The reach of social media is hard to match with any other free marketing tool. 2017 statistics show that 78% of the UK’s adult population is signed up to Facebook, and 45% to Twitter, and most of those check it every day. There’s a lot of potential customers out there. Regular engagement across several platforms builds up followers, which organically spreads it to more. Using your expertise to offer opinions that people learn to trust is a valuable way to enhance this loyalty. You can be collaborative too, and share posts from other businesses you believe in, contribute to discussions, and post in groups, all of which help spread your reach and build your brand. Through likes, comments and tweets, you will also get interesting insights into your customers, who they are, what they like and how they feel about your brand, which you can use to build into an effective marketing campaign.

Interestingly Facebook’s own research suggests there is just 3.5 degrees of separation on Facebook, rather than the more traditionally recognised six degrees, which means you have an even closer community of people talking to each other. When someone shares something on social media – whether Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – it immediately becomes a form of endorsement or recommendation, making it all the more powerful. You can further boost this using Facebook’s valuable data and Facebook ads, reaching out to more potential customers.

Even if your business is very technical, or seasonal, you can be clever in targeting your audience. There was the florist, who knew its target market was mostly male, and instead of images of pretty flowers, its posts appealed to male humour or interests. Never flowers, but when the men were looking for a florist, that florist jumped to mind because it had been appealing to them in a completely different way, but with the same desired outcome.

If it’s all a daunting process, start with one social media platform – Facebook, Twitter or Instagram as starters, LinkedIn and Pinterest can follow. Get one underway, and then start thinking about how to integrate the same posts in to the others. They each have a slightly different voice and delivery, so adapting posts is the best way, rather than setting each one to be shared from another (eg from Facebook to Twitter), though you could start with this to get you going. Some posts may be more appropriate for one platform than another. If you are still daunted, Jane Craigie Marketing can help you with your social media campaign and establishing that essential online presence.

Susannah Pate is a specialist in food, tourism, travel and lifestyle PR managing accounts from small rural start-ups to urban icons. She has worked in city and rural environments and is married to a farmer. A graduate of the Scottish Rural Leadership Programme and Oxford Farming Conference Emerging Leader, she loves the power of a good story.