Can SMB Owners Make Social Media Useful?

negativeThough the buzz is strong, a study released last month from Citibank and Gfk Roper found that 76 percent of small business owners don’t find social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn helpful in generating leads and business. In fact, 86 percent said they don’t use social media sites to get advice or information. Instead, they’re relying on search engines.

According to the results released last month [emphasis mine]:

“Our survey suggests that small business owners are still feeling their way into social media, particularly when it comes to using these tools to grow their businesses,” said Maria Veltre, EVP of Citi’s Small Business Segment. “While social media can provide additional channels to network and help grow a business, many small businesses may not have the manpower or the time required take advantage of them.”

And I think that’s how the recent survey results should be taken — small business owners are still feeling their way in.  It’s not that social media isn’t helpful. It’s simply a learning curve.

In truth, I actually think small business owners are among those doing social media the best. SMB owners simply know how to talk and engage their customers in ways that big businesses have forgotten. They know how to be human and relatable better than anyone. Where their struggle comes from is in the time investment involved in that initial learning curve.

How do you manage the time element?

Know Why You’re There

Social media becomes a time suck when you don’t have a purpose for what you’re doing. When you haven’t created a social media plan and you’re simply clicking around and engaging in every conversation you can get your hands on. Ideally, you want to list out what you’re trying to accomplish with social media and then identify the actions that will help you achieve those goals. You want to be able to measure social media success so that you can keep tabs on what you’re doing and determine what is or is not successful.

Determine Where, How To Engage

You can’t be everywhere. It’s just not realistic. Instead, figure out where it makes sense for you to engage. Maybe that’s Twitter. Or LinkedIn. Or a Delicious. Or a site that’s only big in your community. Either way, focusing only on certain sites helps you to focus your efforts and get the most out of them. It’s always better to pick two or three sites that you’ll want to put a lot of energy into than diluting that among 15.

Once you know where your community is and where you’ll be spending your time, create rules for how you’ll be engaging. What tone will you take? What will you say? How far can you go to fix someone’s problem? What types of conversations will you have? Outlining this beforehand will help you maximize your time when you do engage.

Use Tools To Help Overload

Social media tools help make it appear like you’re always there and engaging even when you’re really not.  The trick is to find the tools that work for what you’re doing. For example, to manage your blogging, use a feed reader like Google Reader to help you keep track of the conversation and prioritize blogs into different topics and importance levels. If you’re using WordPress, schedule posts in advance and use plugins to make your blog more social media-friendly. If you’re using Twitter, use tools like Tweetdeck, HootSuite or Seesmic to help you manage conversation and schedule tweets ahead of time. Use Google Alerts via either email or RSS to keep track of social media mentions. Spend some time building a strong listening station now and you’ll put yourself in a better position to manage everything.

Create a Schedule, Set Limits

In my experience, the companies that have a hard time with social media are the ones who try to sit on the fence. They know they should engage, so they do.halfway. They’re dipping their toes in without making it part of their day-to-day routine. You need to schedule social media time the same way you schedule in all your other commitments. It has to be given the same attention and priority. By setting aside time to talk to people, to tweet fun things, to connect with your audience on Facebook, LinkedIn, etc, you help establish your presence and make it a real part of your organization. It’s important that you develop a consistence schedule so that users trust your presence.

Those are some ways I think small business owners could do a better job leveraging social media to see ROI. What are your thoughts?


Lisa Barone Lisa Barone is Vice President of Strategy at Overit, an Albany Web design and development firm where she serves on the senior staff overseeing the company’s marketing consulting, social media, and content divisions.

15 Reactions
  1. There is also a lot of fear fear based out of ignorance regarding social media. There’s no track record or best practices established yet. No playbook that can be adapted.

    For example, when something like Twitter grows so quickly, there’s lots of hype. It’s unclear how to use this. People quickly look at it, but it seems daunting. Streams of thoughts are posted. There’s a pattern, but you’re just not sure what it is it feels like you’re a tourist in a middle of New York city at rush hour!

    I know when I started with Twitter in Feb of this year, I was completely lost (and still feel like I am at times) but participating, learning, and reading others helps shape and understand the use of this tool.

    Start carefully. Pick one or two social media tools (LinkedIn seems best for business, most say start a blog before anything else) and develop a plan as Lisa suggests. Then stick with it for 6 months. Make adjustments as you learn. In the end, the fear will subside and there will be value for your business.

    Cheers, Grant (@gwickes)

  2. Taking your time getting into social media is okay, but Lisa makes a great point; at some point you need to commit. It doesn’t have to be a huge effort, but it needs to be consistent and genuine. Imagine the benefit if you could reach out to just one additional customer every day. How much would that be worth to your business? Social media allows you to do that as well as potentially multiplying it many times over.

  3. These are great points for any small business to keep in mind.
    I think what can also be noted is that the type of business and stage of growth that a business is at can also determine how they will participate in social media.
    For example, an established company with an existing customer base may want to focus on using Twitter for customer service – Freshbooks and Comcast are examples of companies doing that.
    But this may not be relevant for a new business that wants to focus on developing visibility – they would take a different approach.
    I don’t think it’s yet been proven that social media is great for directly generating solid sales leads – generally it seems to be better for customer service or the warm fuzzy stuff of branding which may indirectly lead to sales.

  4. I haven’t found social media to be extremely helpful yet, but I definitely see its potential. Posting a video clip that can be shared by other Facebook users could be extremely valuable. I post a video, my friends share it with their friends, and their friends…etc. Who knows? Maybe Kevin Bacon will end up watching my video and doing business with my company!

    At the very least, posting a twitter message or a facebook post puts my business out there to be seen by people I would normally not interact with. And its free!

    Nate Hanson
    Pilothouse Films

  5. Lisa: Do you have any suggestion on how set a schedule for your social media activities? Will you write it down in your daily calendar / to-do list and block off time periods? Should try to do it at certain times, e.g., during coffee breaks and create an atmosphere of a water cooler conversation?

  6. I agree with the above – and also agree with the Citibank/GfK study.

    I’m not surprised to learn that a majority of small businesses have not found social media sites helpful in generating leads or expanding business. Without having a strong purpose or the time to commit to social media, it’s an easy place to get lost in the noise.. But I don’t think that small businesses are unique in this respect. Social Media as a business tool is still fairly new – many companies in general, regardless of size, are still figuring out how to leverage it for business.

    But I do believe that those companies that take the time to work in social media will find it rewarding. It will generate buzz, lead to new contacts – and all of that combined will generate leads and new business. I absolutely believe that small businesses – once they jump in – will find it a rewarding way of engaging with their public.

  7. Totally agree – We posted these results on Dell’s Facebook page for SMBs and most everyone (entreprenerus) agree with this thinking as well.

  8. Robert makes a good point about consistency which is what is needed to be successful with all aspects of marketing not just social media. Also the point “know why you are there” is a key element as this gives social media a purpose and makes you think about your small business and customers first before just jumping in.

  9. Great tips.
    Really good to see small business onwers getting into and using the social media

  10. Lisa,

    Thank you so much! You are right on the money. I continue to watch new Twitter users fade into the sunset after a month or two. They are giving up way too early.

    We just have to all keep at it.

    The Franchise King
    Joel Libava

  11. Online Business Cookbook

    Boy these automated Twitter feed comments are annoying. Would these Twitter comment feeds be an example of your observation made in the post — “Social media tools help make it appear like you’re always there and engaging even when you’re really not.”

    Has twitter really helped anybody do anything in a novel way, or is it just a shorted circuit promoted as a new path?

  12. Online Business Cookbook

    It has not increased sales much for us. It has increased bot traffic considerably though. It has increased the time we have to spend looking like we are cyber-socialized.

    These social sites can be useful and they can be a huge waste of time. It depends on how you systematize them and if there is a clear path of intention before, through and after the social tool.

    Mainly they are used to widen ones sense of self and to go deeper into narcissism.

  13. I’m not too surprised. It takes a lot of work to get up to speed on using social media and then a lot more work to actually figure out what to do with them. It probably comes down to if your customers are heavy users, then you should be, too, and probably will be anyway. If not, then time is better spent on something else.