I don’t want to come off like one of those old curmudgeons railing against “the terrible music the kids listen to these days” but hey, there are times when alarming trends are worthy of a rant or two. The subject of my ire? The lack of substantial business expertise provided by too many social media “experts” who sell themselves as business builders.
At its heart, the business-building aspect of Social Media is pretty old-fashioned; it simply uses high-tech methods to help small businesses enhance their client bases through word of mouth and person-to-person connections. Consumers looking for a service or product tend to gravitate to businesses recommended by friends and peers in their personal community. The kinds of recommendations that were shared--in generations past--by people standing in line at the corner market are now shared by people browsing online at their desks.
This simple principle seems to be lost on too many web gurus who are dazzled by the potential coolness of their tools, seemingly ignoring the fact that facebook/twitter/google+/pinterest/youtube/linkedin/blogs/ning/flickr/digg/whatever are merely methods to be used toward connecting with people with each other. They confuse the ends with the means.
Now, for me to point out that the media world has long gravitated to glitz over substance is sort of like complaining that toddlers have long prefered chocolate cake to strained peas, but the point is small business owners are suffering and many don’t even know it. They are over-spending their own limited funds for minimal, if any, returns. Paying for thousands of fans on Facebook is worthless if none of them is a potential customer!
This problem has kicked into high gear with the flood of recent college grads presenting themselves as social media-based business gurus. Aside from some admittedly impressive web site design skills they bring to the table, they offer less than meets the eye. True, most did come of age using digital media so their comfort level is such that these tools are second nature to them. But the downside is that they have minimal life experience, no business experience and little business training. Simply giving their clients a presence on an array of web platforms is meaningless if there is no substance framing products or services in a way that reaches the client's key marketplace.
Here’s the bottom line: When selecting someone to help with individual social media promotion, business owners might do well to keep the following questions in mind:
Does your web-based promotions maven have an understanding of how to sell YOUR specific product or service… or is she just interested in promoting her own business at the expense of yours?
Will your web guru dedicate enough time to learn about your business, your customer’s needs, and how your customers think? Will he interact with the product itself or chat with your sales people or spend time on the sales floor listening to customers?
Just remember, it’s your money. And in this high-tech version of the Emperor’s New Clothes, it's hard tell whether he is dressed like a king or is stark naked… when the Emporer exists solely in cyberspace.
Unless you sell a product that's uniquely yours, you have competition. Competition used to mean businesses similar to yours but, thanks to the internet, your suppliers have thrown their hat into the ring. Those big corporations whose products you carry have deep pockets...money to throw at glossy ad campaigns featuring expensive models or costly incentives to get your customers to click their "like" button. Will your customer's attention be drawn by the lowest price? By a hot celeb sporting the item on the red carpet? How do you differentiate yourself in this crowd? How do you keep your customer coming back? More importantly, what will get your customer to recommend you to his friends?
The question to ask is what sets you apart from your competition? The answer will likely be something the national brands and major internet retailers don't even have a shot at...relationships and personal service. If the product is the same across retailers, the difference is you. Capitalize on that. Of course, you want to talk about your product. While doing so, be sure to highlight why buying it from you is a better idea. If you have valet parking, post a photo of a customer being escorted to your door in a downpour, covered by an umbrella.
You've worked hard to create a community around the service you provide. You welcome your client by name, ask about the kids, make suggestions based upon things you know about her life. The next step is to encourage that community to live and grow online. The very best way for the small to mid-sized business owner to gain an edge over the national brands is to think small, granular...regardless of how big you get. Your community is the best place to start. The next time a client asks you to support his favorite charity, connect with that charity on Facebook and Twitter and ask that, instead of an old-fashioned letter of thanks for your contribution, might they consider thanking you as a post on their wall.
When you decided to open your small to mid-sized business, you never thought you'd have to compete with your suppliers but, thanks to the internet, that's become a reality. Level the playing field by focusing on what you do best...personal service, attention to detail, your sense of style, or whatever it is that sets you apart. Celebrate the fact that your customers rave about your House Blend when there's a Starbucks in every zip code.
Businesses, both large and small, are feeling pressure to add social media to their marketing plans. Between Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, blogs, and e-mail marketing (just to name a few), there are already too many options with new ones showing up on the scene all the time. Once the decision is made to jump into social media, there's the strategy to consider. It's hard not to be tempted by blog posts and articles claiming to help you "Get 5,000 followers in 5 minutes" or "Increase your Facebook fans by 200% TODAY." Is this what social media is really about? Quantity over quality?
It's true that the more connections you have, the greater your reach could be, but where's the value if no one has a reason to interact with you...and, like blowing the seeds of a dandelion, it's through these interactions that your business is introduced to a new audience of potential clients. That's just how social media works. In order to build a vibrant community within your social media ecosystem, connections need to grow organically. When a satisfied client clicks the "Like" or "Follow" button, not only is it a testimonial about your business but also a signal that your client actually wants to hear what you have to say and is willing to recommend you.
The Straw Hat is a restaurant on the Caribbean island of Anguilla that uses Facebook to make social media sing. The owners, expat Americans Anne and Peter Parles, have created a virtual and interactive outpost for a wonderful vacation memory of Anguilla. Diners who enjoyed the restaurant can (and actively do) communicate with their new friends, Anne and Peter, after they return to the various parts of the globe they call home. Visit Straw Hat's Facebook page and you'll see rave reviews of the food, concerned comments about looming hurricanes, Straw Hat T-shirt sightings from all sorts of random places. One guest liked his dinner so much he posted a picture of it on his own Facebook page for all his friends to enjoy vicariously. It's a vibrant community where everyone is a friend...but it is also the very best kind of advertising available...Word of Mouth.
Part of what allowed Anne and Peter to succeed in their social media endeavor is that their approach is reflective of them as people and how they run their business. Guests of Straw Hat immediately feel like friends and posts on their Facebook page are answered promptly and graciously by Peter. As business owners, they are accessible, interested, genuine and likeable...a very appealing combination. There is no attempt to use Facebook to advertise the restaurant in a conventional sense, only to cultivate and nurture relationships. Anne and Peter know that if people like you and your product, not only will they return but they will recommend you to a friend.
Social media is a two-way street...a conversation. For it to be most effective, small business owners need to be front and center, starting the dialogue or participating in one that's been started. If there is a negative comment, use it as an opportunity to correct misinformation and to show the public that you value their opinion. Above all, it's a great time to express your gratitude for your clients' interest or loyalty. As you're thinking about your social media strategy, feel the virtual sand between your toes and visit the Straw Hat's Facebook page...I hear the snapper's delicious.
I just miss being able to call myself a digital native by a few years. I guess that makes me a digital immigrant since I can clearly remember life before the internet and do so without an eye roll. I got on the social media bandwagon one foot at a time and with great skepticism. I admit, I was originally much more of a stalker than a sharer, but I was hooked...fascinated...and not quite sure what to make of the cultural shift unfolding around me.
Then one day, while looking at my Facebook wall, I noticed a post saying "Sam T. likes Sociable!". Hmmmm....what's that? I like Sam a lot, he's a really smart guy...wonder why he "liked" that book.
One click took me to the Facebook fan page for Sociable!, a book about social media marketing by Shane Gibson and Stephen Jagger. My curiosity was piqued. One more click and I was at Amazon, reading in-depth about the new book. A third click and Sociable! was on its way to me.
I read the 200 page book in three days and my imagination caught fire. Clearly, the social media party was just starting and this was one to which I didn't want to be fashionably late. It was the perfect introduction to a new era of information sharing as opposed to the prior one of keeping your knowledge close to the vest. I started reading everything I could find about social media marketing and gradually putting the pieces of my new business together. I was obsessed with social media. As I talked about it with friends, I was amazed at how many asked for help setting up a social media strategy for their small businesses or personal endeavors. They knew they needed to incorporate social media into their marketing plan but didn't have the time to learn about it or manage it.
About a month later, I saw Sam T. Since he's in a totally unrelated field, I was curious about his relationship to Sociable!. Did he know the authors? I thanked him for the wonderful, life-changing recommendation that spawned a new business venture and asked him why he "liked" the book. He said, "Oh, that? Yeah...that was a mistake. I meant to 'like' a social networking site with a similar name and typed the wrong thing." He'd never even heard of Sociable!
The power of word of mouth is incontrovertible, even when it's unintentional. Humans are, by nature, social creatures and we take our cues from each other. Print and television advertising was originally conceived with the assumption that the viewer would relate to the spokesperson and visualize herself or someone familiar drinking that soda or using that razor. We've evolved one step further, welcome to the social media generation of advertising and marketing...it's no longer a sexy model or professional athlete trying to sell you shampoo, it's your mother! And who doesn't listen to Mom?