Snowballs are famous for getting big fast. Start with a lump the size of your fist and before you know it you’ve got something that could squash a Volkswagen. The snowball grows quickly because you keep expanding the surface area, which means that every time you roll the thing you come in contact with a lot more snow than you did on the previous roll.

Social media works the same way; it’s all about increasing contacts. If you’re running a business, you can look at it from the perspective of impressions, which during the last ice age was how marketers used to measure everything. Now it’s all about sharing instead of selling; but more on that later. For now, let’s talk snowballs.

How a tweet goes viral

Take Twitter, for example. Twitter was designed for sharing bits of inconsequential blather among friends, but it turns out to be the perfect social snowball medium. Say you’ve got 1,000 Twitter followers. You post a particularly clever tweet and 1% of your followers retweet it. Now consider that each of those ten people also has a community of followers, and to keep the math simple we’ll say they have a thousand followers each. So with one round of retweets your original tweet has now been presented to a possible ten thousand people. If 1% of those ten thousand followers get enough kick out of your tweet and retweet it to 1,000 followers each, your tweet will suddenly have a potential audience of 100,000—that’s with just two retweets! The snowball is off and rolling on its own. This is how things go viral, but that’s such an ugly metaphor that I much prefer snowballs.

Social media is good for business

Okay, so you’ve created this amazing snowballing, unstoppable force of nature…what good is it? How can you harness the power to benefit your business? Most people still think in terms of direct benefits. “I could tweet about my remarkable 1-day offer. That should snowball nicely,” they might think. Think again. Social media is not about direct sales. People share tweets and posts that are of interest, that are insightful, provocative or that tickle their funny bones. The real value is when your tweet links back to your website to a piece of content that was the reason for your tweet in the first place.

Consider an example. One guy tweets the funniest joke in the world. Within a day it’s snowballed and a billion people are laughing their heads off. What a funny guy, all those people think, but a billion people laughing does the joke-teller no good. Now consider another guy—let’s say he’s an SEO guru; he posts a story on his website about the funniest joke in the world and how it went viral, then he tweets this with a link back to his site. Within a day he’s had 100,000 visits. The results are much more modest than the jokester’s, but because he included a link to his website each of those visits will give him a bit of a boost with respect to search engines such as Google and Yahoo. That’s something of real value, but not for the reason you might be thinking, that is if you’re thinking, “Well, of course maybe some of those 100,000 people might be interested in his SEO services.” It is possible, of course, but that’s not why the social snowball benefits business. It works because getting people to your website helps the site gain visibility with regard to search engines so that the real potential customers who are searching for terms such as “SEO guru” will find your website.

Making a social impression

And that takes us back to the old-school concept of marketing impressions. Before the days of social media, businesses advertised with the idea that if enough people saw an ad, some of them would respond to it. Quaint, I know, but there is still a bit of value in that concept if you have deep pockets. But for most businesses, and small businesses in particular, the impressions you need these days are those you get in search engine results by showing up at the top of page one of Google. And the added benefit of using social media to help you achieve search engine visibility is that social media itself is actually even more powerful than search. How can that be? The answer is that people trust people more than they trust businesses or machines. An endorsement of your business or product from social media fans means more to a prospective customer than any advertisement or clever marketing slogan you could possibly hope to create. And when people share online, they share links, which means that you create a shortcut past search engines (and your competition) when you get endorsed via social media.

Now that you know all about how you can use social media with your business, it’s time to get rolling.