Social Media for Small Business: When is the time right?
When You Will Know If the Time Is Right for Social Media
Retailers and small businesses ask: What -- if anything -- should I do about social media?
Social media noise is everywhere these days. You can't even watch the latest television news without getting an invitation to send your comments to the talking head of the day via Twitter, Facebook, the newscaster's webpage, email, or the station's website.
Social media has also gone commercial with international brands like Audi running a Twitter hashtag campaign in their ad for the Super Bowl, easily the most expensive television commercial thanks to its huge audience. Audi's investment in this effort shows the importance they believe social media has attained.
More and more the brands you know and the retailers you patronize invite you to "friend" them or follow them or connect with them in the social media alternate universe. A recent study by EMarketers found that 80 percent of leading companies will participate in social-media marketing in 2011, nearly double the number from just three years ago.
With seemingly everybody and every business using social media in one form or another, business people who haven't already jumped in heads first are asking the inevitable questions:
What should I do about social media?
Is it important to my business?
Will it get me more customers?
Will it generate more sales?
Will it make me more successful and more profitable?
Must my business have a social media presence?
Investing in social media is an act of faith, as little proof yet exists that it builds sales or motivates customers
The simple fact is that nobody really knows what social media ultimately means to any business now invested in it, as a recent Fast Company article explains, entitled "Do 'Likes' and ReTweets Add Up to Sales? Who Knows? And Who Really Cares?" http://bit.ly/jqOg1z
For example, Brad Shaw, a vice president for Home Depot, says his company invests in social media without expecting a monetary return, "We're trying different ways to help us better understand the 'value' of a Facebook 'like,' but at this point, revenue is not the intent."
That attitude may be acceptable for big businesses like Home Depot or Audi with hoards of staff and plenty of high-tech expertise. But for a small business like most independent retailers, with extremely limited staffing and even more limited technical expertise, you need more than a hope and a prayer in order to commit to social media. You need to know that your efforts will indeed yield meaningful and measurable results for your precious investment of time, money and resources.
In fact, you need to be sure that your social media efforts will give better results than any other way you could spend your time; otherwise, even a successful social media campaign will be a net loss.
Here are three simple ways to tell if your business is ready to go social
Given the uncertainties of a meaningful return on your social media investment, few can offer authoritative guidance to small businesses about social media, including Facebook, Twitter, blogging and the rest. However, due to my personal experience with social media and my research into the challenges of retailing for my book Shopping: Why We Love It and How Retailers Can Create the Ultimate Customer Experience, here are three ways I discovered that can help you decide whether it's time for your small business to turn onto social media.
1) What is your business' current level of participation on the internet?
For example, do you have an internet website that includes not just directory or brochure-type information, but that also has e-tailing capabilities so that customers can buy products or services online (maybe not all products, but a carefully edited selection of items)? If not, your first task before venturing into social media is to raise the bar on your existing web presence. You need to set up shop in cyber-space, creating a virtual store front where internet-empowered shoppers can visit, select items and make purchases.
Brochure-only informational websites won't cut it in a social media world, so you should talk to your ecommerce provider about expanding the purchase capabilities on your site.
2) Do you have an email list of contacts and customers that you regularly update and use to mail out notices, newsletters, or press releases?
If you answer "No" then this is another critical need you must address before launching a social media initiative. Social media is all about making personal connections, i.e. making friends online. That means you need to start with a bunch of friends that already live in cyber-space and that you can meet in the online world.
You will need to start building and expanding your online list, by asking people who visit your shop to share their email address. You will also need to activate those on your list by inviting them via email and regular communication to share their time and attention with you.
3) Do you have something important to say to people in cyber-space?
Answering in the affirmative to this final question is ultimately the essential thing you need to launch your social media efforts. The previous two show only that you have command of the tools, but this requires content: information that people will be interested in and will want to share with other like-minded people.
While in cable television it appears that the person who shouts loudest and longest gets the attention, that same dynamic doesn't operate online. People have to tune into your special message, they have to search you out and want to share your news and views with others. So it is content that will grab their attention, not slick packaging, fancy programming or colorful graphics.
Social media requires that you provide meaningful and important content that other people are interested in. You need to commit to developing such content and sharing it regularly and frequently in order to build a connection with friends online.
Finally, you have to be willing to commit your time, energy and resources to developing an internet and social media presence with very little measurable return on your investment. You have to set up a schedule of communicating with your 'friends' and keep to it, no matter if you can't see results or measure return right away. At this point, social media is really a matter of faith, faith that it will produce return ultimately, but when and how much is still very much up for grabs.