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.”