I often meet people from around the globe who, like me have a keen interest in social media that they would like to share. Today we have a guest post from Daniela Baker, a social media advocate from Credit Donkey. Her areas of expertise are in new media and journalism. – Francois

When it comes to using social media to market your small business, setting goals and priorities can sometimes seem like an exercise in futility. If you feel this way, you’re definitely not alone. According to a 2011 study from Wildfire, one of the main problems marketers have with social media is measuring return on investment.

After all, how do you measure the ROI of relationships? While about 38% of marketers measure ROI through increased interaction, another 15% measure it through increased brand awareness. Though how you can reliably measure brand awareness is a little confusing.

The truth is that since social media is about being, well, social, it is difficult to set priorities and to measure progress. But as you’re building relationships with customers and potential customers, one thing to think about is building trust. Yes, it’s difficult to measure how much people trust your business, but increasing trust can eventually pay off in more customer loyalty, new customers, and increased sales.

So if you’re ready to create a real plan for building trust with your social media followers and fans, take these five steps to do it:

Become a thought leader

Too many companies who stumble around in social media marketing make it all about the marketing part and not about the social part. But here’s the thing: social media users are bombarded by advertisements every day. They can spot ads from a mile away. And if you’re spending all your time actively promoting your business in traditional ways, you’re going to lose fans and followers very quickly.

Instead of just bombarding people with information about your latest sale, focus on becoming a thought leader. A thought leader is a person or firm that is the go-to resource in the field. In the personal finance industry, people will listen to the finance-related advice of a thought leader. In the carpet cleaning industry, the thought leader will be a trusted resource on cleaning and maintaining carpets.

No matter what industry you’re in, you can establish thought leadership for your group of followers by simply being the expert that you already are. Sure, on a broader level thought leaders are usually CEOs of major firms. But you can still be a thought leader in your own niche by offering helpful tips, advice, and information to people who connect with you on social media.

Be transparent – from the top down

One of the best ways for a business to build trust with its audience is to be transparent all the way to the top. Many large corporations are taking this tack, as CEOs and CFOs and other people with important titles spend time on social media themselves, connecting directly with customers.

It says something great about a business when the busy, important people at the top are willing to connect with customers. In small companies, this often means that the owner has at least a part in the social media marketing plan. Larger companies may actually run multiple, connected social media accounts, so that the leader of the company has his or her own account to maintain.

Respond to customers as quickly as possible

Quick response times are essential in any form of customer service, but they’re perhaps more essential than ever when it comes to social media. We’re living in the world of right now, and your customers expect responses right now – especially since many of them are posting on your Facebook wall or Tweeting about you on the go from a mobile device!

So you need to set up some sort of plan for responding to customers within a timely manner – at least within twenty-four hours. Even on the weekends, it’s best to respond to customers that same day, if at all possible. This is doubly true if customers are writing in to complain about your business or an experience they had with your business. Simply answering a complaint, valid or not, in a courteous, timely manner will definitely win you points with your social media followers – whether or not you are actually able to make the complaining customer happy.

Show people your best customers

Showing off your best, happiest customers is a great way to build trust. People like human-interest stories, so things like case studies, which you can publish on your blog and then share on social media, are a great option here. Sharing real success stories from real customers is much more effective than traditional marketing, since it shows potential customers that there are people around there who really buy into your business and have benefited from it.

You can also take time to thank customers who leave compliments on your Facebook wall, or retweet appreciative comments on Twitter. Simply showing your appreciation for their appreciation goes a long way towards building better relationships – both with your already-happy customers and with your soon-to-be customers.

Have fun with it

One of the best ways to build trust and to engage a bigger audience is to simply be human. Even a business that seems boring on the surface really isn’t, since anything that involves people is interesting on some level. So have fun showing off what makes your business interesting – even if it’s pictures from a company party (just make sure they’re appropriate!) instead of a blog post about the benefits of your business. Share infographics, photos, and interesting pieces of info about your employees, and your social media following will grow more than ever.

Building trust, as you know from your own relationships, takes time. So don’t expect this process to work overnight. But spend time in the process, and work on connecting with your customers as much as possible. Over time, you’ll become the go-to company in your niche for information, questions, and, of course, your own wonderful products and services.