Social media is everywhere—and has drastically changed the way we communicate. And if you own a small business, chances are that the question about whether or not to participate is a challenging one.
It’s easy to feel like you’re missing on business opportunities when you’re still trying to grasp the latest communications trends and determine how best to compete. A study conducted back in 2009 by the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business found that one in five small business owners had adopted social media into their business processes.* Yet a more recent survey taken in November 2011 showed that 67% of small businesses were holding back on investing in social media because they didn’t know where to begin, and feared the resources required to meet the expectations of social media users.**
And there you have it: for a small business—where every dollar counts and resources tend to be fixed—is it even feasible, let alone worthwhile, to get involved in social media? Does it make sense? Is it important? Should it be a priority?
Ultimately, only you can answer those questions for your business.
However, to help you make a more informed decision, we’ll talk about the purpose and intent behind social media as it’s meant to be used by businesses. We’ll outline what social media is not about. And we’ll dispel some common myths to give you a more clear understanding of how social media works. By the end, you should be able to at least answer: “Is social media right for your small business, or not?”
If your answer is yes, stay tuned, because in the weeks to come we’ll be delivering strategies and outlining practical applications for moving you forward with a plan.
The Purpose of Social Media
The purpose of social media for businesses begins and ends with the customer. No matter which social media platform you use, being able to communicate directly and honestly with your customers is not only expected these days, but a necessity.
Social media allows you to listen to what your current and potential customers are saying in a unique way which didn’t exist before the last decade or so. You can interact in real time with your customers, solve their problems, answer their questions and acknowledge their concerns, as well as celebrate, laugh and rub shoulders with them. You can develop a rapport with them through channels that were once primarily controlled by traditional media.
When you put yourself on your customers’ level, you can begin to think like they think, thus opening up worlds of opportunity to develop better products, deliver better service, and gain that all-important customer loyalty. Without social media, you might still be able to accomplish these things, but we’ll go out on a limb and say you probably wouldn’t be able to do them as well.
Here’s what social media is not about, though:
- It’s not about doing a hard sell. Let go of the idea of in-your-face selling via social media. Instead, understand that what makes social media such a useful tool is how good it is for building relationships with your audience and earning their trust.
- It’s not about self-promotion. Using social media to market and promote your company and develop brand awareness can be appropriate in small doses, but shouldn’t be your main focus. Keeping your promotion efforts to a minimum of your overall activity frees you up to really listen to and converse with your audience.
- It’s not about putting on a corporate suit and delivering predetermined sound bites that you hope will somehow resonate. It is a place, however, where you have the opportunity to humanize your brand; to give it a voice and show a real personality with which your audience can relate. Think of your social media activity as coming from a guy named Bob, your customers’ good buddy. How would Bob talk to them? What would he say or not say? How would he keep them interested and happy? (Or maybe it’s not Bob at all, but that nice lady Linda from down the street…or that cool computer-y kid Sal who knows all the tips and tricks. You get the point.)
As with any trend that becomes part of the mainstream, there are a lot of misconceptions floating around out there about social media. Here are some of the common ones:
Myth #1: Social media is free. While creating a Facebook or Twitter account doesn’t decrease your marketing budget dollars you will be spending time on your social media activity, and time is always inherently valuable. This is a big one to get for many small businesses whose staff and employees are so often time-strapped.
Myth #2: I need to participate in everything. Signing up for several social networks and then neglecting most of them because you don’t have the time to keep them up (see Myth #1) is a negative for your business. Know that you’re much better off not joining every new network that comes along if time and resources are a factor for you. Instead, learn the most frequented sites by your target customers and reach them through only one or two of the most relevant networks.
Myth #3: Success will happen overnight. Only in the same way that planting a seed will yield a mature plant the very next day. The truth is that growing your social media audience organically takes time and patience. And because what works for one business doesn’t necessarily work for another, success is often based on trial and error.
Myth #4: I can hire someone to do this for me. You certainly can, but you might be disappointed. While there are all kinds of “social media experts” out there for hire, maintaining your own level of understanding and involvement in the activity keeps your voice and interactions authentic. Staying true to your business means that you should define the message—not a third party.
Participating in social media is both an exhilarating and challenging process, especially if you are completely new to it. That’s why managing your expectations and knowing the ins and outs upfront goes a long way toward meeting your ultimate goals.
Here’s the deal: social media is likely here to stay in one form or another. And though some effort is required for its planning and maintenance, social media really can be a rewarding tool for a small business to use.
So, given everything we’ve discussed so far, where do you stand with social media?
If you’ve decided it’s not right for your business at this time, no problem; you can always come back to this discussion when it becomes relevant to you again.
But if you’re ready to get your feet wet and take the next step, check out next week’s article “What Should My Social Media Strategy Be?”
*Source: University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business, Feb. 16, 2010, http://www.rhsmith.umd.edu/news/releases/2010/021610.aspx/
**Source: OfficeArrow and Social Strategy 1 survey, November 2011
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