The big question for small business owners five years ago was, "Should I use Google instead of yellow pages to attract new customers?" Now Google is commonly used by SMBs and that question gave way to a new one: "Do I need to be using social media?"
Social media is a much more complex issue than the Google versus yellow pages debate. With dozens of options, most small businesses can't decide where to invest their limited time. Many become overwhelmed and end up doing nothing. So, what to do?
Do You Need to Use Social Media?
This is the most important question to answer. Social media is key for businesses that rely on repeat visits and have changing and interesting content (e.g., frequent deals, new inventory, class schedules).
Take Knitting Under the Influence...of Nancy from Shreveport, Louisiana. Because Nancy's knitting classes open and close, special yarns go on and off the shelves and -- most importantly -- her community is really interested in hearing from her and interacting with her content. She can't rely on monthly e-mails, so she organized a community of knitters around her. Social media makes it easy for her to continue the conversation even when her customers aren't in her shop.
What to Talk About Online?
Think of social media as a conversation. If you talk to your customers when they call you or come into your store, you may want to find ways to continue that conversation online.
Anytime you find yourself printing out a sign to put up in your business about a sale, an event, or about your hours, you can easily convey that content online, more effectively and more quickly. The key is to keep your posts personal, yet relevant to your business. Let your personality show the same way you do face to face.
What Social Media Tools Should You Use?
The more important question is, "Where do your customers want to hear from you?" Does your content mix well with the content of the channel you've picked?
Facebook, for example, is highly social. Happy hour in a bar may work just fine in a Facebook context. At the same time, a deal from a furniture store may not fit well between a post about a bad date and another with vacation photos.
Here are some simple rules that will help you choose where to invest your precious time:
- What's your goal? Many small businesses want to focus on attracting new customers. If this is your only goal, you may want to use one of the many group-buying sites. Others may want to become an authority in their unique space (e.g., tropical gardening). For businesses like this, a combination of a blog and Twitter can be much more effective.
- Context is key. Try to understand the context of the social channel you're interested in. Is it social, informative, commercial, artistic? If your content is out of context, you may not get the response you're hoping to get. For example, if you use Flickr to share photos from your business, make sure your pictures are of the quality Flickr uses expect. Flickr is known to attract photographers and people who appreciate great photography.
- How active can you be? Do you plan to spend hours on site responding, retweeting, and engaging, or can you only spend minutes a day? Some social networks require massive interaction to get traction while others can work with less. You'll have to invest some time in any case, but pick one that seems to fit your ability and desire to interact in real time.
Social media makes perfect sense to many small businesses. Aside from the time investment, social media is free to use in most cases.
The best advice is to jump on the relevant social sites yourself and interact with other businesses. Doing this will help you understand the experience from the customer's viewpoint, and estimate the investment you need to give your own customers a valuable experience.