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How Small Businesses Are Using Social Media for Real Results
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Social media can be a scary prospect for small businesses; unlike traditional marketing methods, it puts part of the message in the hands of the customers. But while it’s easy to be concerned that the message will go the wrong way, the benefits can outweigh the risks if you use the available services wisely.
The most obvious benefits are increased customer loyalty and engagement. Less obvious but just as important: Your business will gain exposure not through your own advertisements, but through folks who’ve already been patrons. We’re more likely to trust a Facebook update or Yelp review from a friend than from the business itself.
We spoke with small business owners and social media managers around the world who have successfully used social media to increase business performance, and we asked them for their stories and their tips. Here’s what we learned.
It’s About Relationships, Not Pitches
The most common advice we received from businesses successfully using social media: Use it to engage your customers in a conversation, not just sell your services. Ideally, social media helps any business become the corner barbershop or bookstore where the owner knows each regular’s name and preferences.
Reid Travis is the social media manager at quick-serve Mexican restaurant chain Panchero’s, which while not exactly a small business, is decidedly the little guy when stacked up to the larger, multi-national fast-food chains against which it competes. “We’re not focused on marketing to our followers, fans and readers,” he says. “Our primary goal is to connect with them.” He says engagement and transparent communication are important assets.
“I feel like companies that practice one-way conversation (the talking-only kind) are pretty much missing the entire point of social media … The best advice I can give from my adventures in the social realm is to listen more than you talk and don’t be scared to let go of the reigns. You’re definitely not going to be able to control the entire message out there; be okay with that.”
Blatz Market & Liquor’s Joe Woelfle employs a similar strategy. He says: “Social media has been pivotal in growing my business. A good portion of my tweets are conversational just to stay in front of my followers as much as possible. However I also use it to gauge interest about new products, run specials, and get the word out about events.”
Woelfle says his January 2010 was up 25% over the same month in 2009 after his first year of social media use. His chief slice of advice? “I would tell other SMB’s to be themselves but be sure to actively engage your followers.”
Social Media Exposure: Better Than Ads and Cheaper, Too
Businesses use social media to gain exposure for their products, services and brands. The alternative is traditional advertising, but social media is uniquely valuable to small businesses for two reasons. First, it’s cheaper. But it also ensures that people are hearing about your business from a source they trust more than an advertisement: friends and family.
Jim Glaub’s Art Meets Commerce does Internet and social media marketing for Broadway and off-Broadway shows with limited marketing budgets. Word of mouth is already essential to these productions’ successes — social media is an extension of that.
Glaub says, “People leave the show and jump onto Twitter to tell their friends how much they liked the show. It’s been especially helpful when people with large followings tweet about it, increasing our followers and exposing the show to people that may not have heard of it.”
He also reports that celebrities will attend the shows and tweet about them, providing even more exposure. Having an active Twitter presence encourages these theater fans to spread the word and encourage their own followers to start tracking the show.
For small business owners, it is important to remember that some people will tweet about you or review you on Yelp whether you have a presence there or not, and what they say might not be positive. You need to be on the ground, ready to deal constructively with any negative exposure. As stated previously, you should be participating in and guiding a two-way conversation.
Alan Lewis, director of special projects at Natural Grocers, has some advice on that front:
“Setting up an effective monitoring system and a couple of accounts on HootSuite will really help you understand perceptions and misconceptions about your organization or service, and give you a chance to respond conversationally — and with links or facts. What’s more, those people often become your best, newly educated advocates — they appreciate your accessibility and openness to answering their questions.”
Engaging the Local Community
Julee Mertz puts her passion for swing dancing and her business education to work running a vintage dance studio in Chicago called Big City Swing. She and her staff use Facebookand Yelp to attract students and people just looking for a good time to dances, classes and performances.
The staff primarily uses Facebook for its event features. They host a monthly dance and create a Facebook event well in advance. When someone RSVPs to an event, his or her attendance is by default shared with all of his or her friends. That gets the word out. Mertz says:
“We really enjoy the event invitation function. It’s a great way to keep our monthly dance on people’s weekend agenda. We can now project the attendance and plan accordingly based on the number of folks who’ve accepted the invite. It represents a fraction of the actual attendance, but we’re starting to see a helpful, predictable pattern.”
The studio doesn’t use Yelp to organize events — though it could. Rather, the staff uses it as a source of positive recommendations from other customers. “We love and slightly fear Yelp,” Mertz admits. “We pay attention to everything in our reviews. We reinforce with our staff the aspects of our business our clients enjoy and immediately work on issues they report need improvement.”
She believes that the risk of a poor review is outweighed by the power of a positive one. “We post client testimonials that our students e-mail us, but I believe Yelp adds credibility to reviews,” she says. The studio’s website hosts a badge widget boasting of the studio’s 20 five-star reviews. Visitors who click the badge are taken to Yelp where they can read those reviews hosted by a more convincing third-party.
Yelp has become a necessity for local businesses, so be sure to check out our list of tips for small businesses just getting started with the service.
Going the Extra Mile
The above tips cover just the basics. Some businesses go even further to reach the influential, tech-savvy crowd who spend their lives immersed in social media.
Arizona restaurant Liberty Market actually tweets regular customers asking them how the food was, for example. That’s the variety of attention folks expect to get from a small, mom and pop business. It’s a pleasant surprise that this culture can be amplified in an era of greater connection, not mitigated.
Some businesses will be able to clearly see online sales go up in proportion to Twitter followers. Some won’t. Sometimes it can be less about the monthly figures and more about creating a culture that customers will revisit and talk about with their friends. That’s harder to measure, but it’s long-established wisdom for small businesses trying to compete in a market controlled by big corporate chains.
Using social media, you can offer something to your customers that larger businesses can’t. Liberty Market’s Joe Johnston sums it up:
“People ask me if we have ‘made money’ with Twitter. Absolutely yes. But not how most business think. We have solidified loyalty and have our name out there, front of mind. Because of that, many social media meetups use our place. Patience! One has to believe that increased loyalty and awareness are a key to business growth.”