Social media - right for small firms?

Are small businesses that don’t use social media to market themselves really missing out? Nick Golding finds out

‘Follow us on Twitter’ and ‘Look us up on Facebook’ have become common messages on business websites, as more enterprises have turned to social media to market their products or services.

Fans of social media argue that they enable businesses to reach more customers and build productive relationships with them. Such tools, they say, can enhance your profile, extend your influence, drive traffic to your website and give you a new marketing and sales channel - all at no, or very little, cost.

Making friends

Using social media is not simply a question of logging on, knocking out a few sales messages then signing off again, stresses Penny Power, founder of business networking site Ecademy.

“This is about making friends, but some companies tend to come into these networks to broadcast a message rather than have a conversation,” she points out. “They spam and try to ‘get rich quick’ but don’t build any momentum or relationships.”

Social media are so called because they are sociable; they require an investment in time to build relationships and a willingness to have public conversations with customers, not all of whom are going to be happy. And social media are not just Twitter and Facebook, but also include business networking sites, blogs, and video sharing and picture sharing sites, such as YouTube and Flickr.

Some firms have got it embarrassingly wrong. Habitat, for example, was severely criticised early in 2009 for hijacking current affairs searches on Twitter to push its products. Habitat blamed an "over-enthusiastic intern", but the damage was already done.

“Whether it is Twitter or a blog, this is about joined-up communication,” explains freelance e-commerce manager James Gurd. “You can’t have one person on Twitter and one person in direct marketing speaking a completely different language. It will confuse people about what the business is."

Conversation with customers

“You can’t just put a message up and leave it at that,” Gurd continues. “People share comments and companies need to be aware of that be able to influence it.”

At least one business has turned a PR disaster into a success through smart use of online communication tools. In 2009, two Domino’s Pizza employees posted a video of themselves on YouTube doing revolting things to customers’ pizzas.

To soften the outcry, Domino’s posted its own video on YouTube and created a Twitter account to talk directly with customers about their concerns. The result of their willingness to tackle the issue head on was improved esteem in customers' eyes.

At the least, successful use of social media requires:

  • regular use
  • a willingness to engage publicly with unhappy customers
  • a consistent approach to messages
  • integration with more traditional forms of marketing
  • time

In return for exposing your business to a large online audience, the commercial outcome is frequently uncertain. Social media experts tend to talk in terms of ‘return on influence’ rather than ‘return on investment’. In other words, the relationship between social media use and increased sales is clearer for some businesses than for others.

Economy of scale

According to Ben Temple, it can be far easier for a larger firm to benefit from a particular economy of scale offered by social media. The martial arts instructor runs Dursley Tae Kwon Do which runs clubs in Bristol, Thornbury, Chipping Sodbury and Dursley in Gloucestershire.

“If I create a Facebook page and no one posts any comments, people might think, ‘It can’t be that popular, so I’ll ignore it’,” he explains. “Some people have about 500 friends and it’s become a popularity contest. I don’t want people to think that because people aren’t on my page that the business isn’t very popular.”

More traditional forms of marketing might have a shorter reach, but at least they offer him a greater say over how his business is represented, says Temple. “I have more control over something such as direct marketing with flyers,” he argues. “It allows me to be in charge of who it goes to and how it gets produced.”

So is social media right for you?

Social media at the moment seems to be a case of swings and roundabouts for small firms. How should you decide whether to use these communication tools or not? Perhaps you should simply ask yourself the same question as before about using any new form of marketing: "will my customers actually see this?"

If the answer is no, then why bother? If yes, then get ready to face up to all the possibilities, good and bad, presented by regular and immediate online communication with customers. Whatever you do, however, bear in mind these words from Penny Power: “Social media use depends on the attitude of the person that’s going to use it. I’ve never come across a business where it hasn’t been relevant, but I have come across people that don’t use it appropriately.”

If you would like to read more about how social media can benefit your business, see our social media resources on the Marketing Donut.