When working with small businesses we are often asked two questions: (1) if social networking makes sense for them, and (2) what the “best” social networks to be on are. The short answer is yes, social networking absolutely makes sense for small businesses, and the “best” networks depend on a number of factors.
Social networking is perfect for small businesses
Social networks are practically tailor-made for small businesses. After all, a social network is really about connecting, communicating and sharing with people. Real people. Not faceless “users”, not email addresses. People. Social networks simply enable people to do what they like to do naturally, just in a digital form and without the physical constraints of face-to-face contact. Real people can communicate with other real people anywhere in the world on any topic anytime.
So what is social media? It is the new word of mouth, but with a massive megaphone.
This is perfect for small businesses, who have historically relied heavily on word of mouth to “get the word out” about their products and services. In fact, as outlined in an infographic from Crowdspring, in many cases social media works better for small businesses than for larger organizations:
Furthermore, as outlined in the same infographic, small businesses are reporting that social media is helping them retain existing customers and gain new ones:
With strong results like this, it’s not surprising that the majority of small businesses have jumped on social media, with Facebook being the main area of focus:
And best of all, research has found that there is a relationship between people “liking” or “following” a brand and purchasing products or services from that company:
As an added benefit, social media is also cost effective. Notice I didn’t say “free.” Social media, like anything else of value, has a cost. It may be the cost of hiring someone to set up your social pages, the cost of engaging a professional community manager, or perhaps just the cost of your own time to set up and manage your social account(s).
Because there is a cost, it is important that you are aware of the various options available so you spend your time and dollars wisely. Which leads into the inevitable question: “what are the best social networks to be on?”
The “best” social networks
As for what the “best” social networks are, the answer really depends on:
1) The nature of your business
2) Who you are attempting to reach
3) What your marketing objectives are
4) Your resources / budget
We will address these questions in a moment, but first a quick overview of some of the big networks is in order.
FACEBOOK – the behemoth
Facebook is generally a good idea for most businesses, as it is the largest social network and has value for almost every type of industry. Some brief facts:
- Facebook just passed 1 billion users, half of whom log on for a daily average session time is 55 minutes
- The average user has 200+ friends
- It’s the best all-round network to engage with people
‒ Strong photo & multimedia sharing capabilities
‒ Ability to create custom “widgets” to bring in your own content and functionality
- Facebook gets results
‒ 33% of consumers have made a purchase based on Facebook recommendations
‒ 76% of people have never ‘unliked’ a brand
‒ 56% of fans say they are more likely to recommend a brand to a friend after becoming a fan
No matter what you may personally think about Facebook, it’s by far the biggest social network and can’t be ignored. In addition, the network is generally pretty business-friendly with reasonable built-in tools and analytics.
Depending on the nature of your business, other networks may be more pertinent. However, when in doubt going with Facebook is a pretty safe bet.
TWITTER – great for customer service but a lot of work
The other social network many companies jump into (often with knowing why) is Twitter. I’m a big fan of Twitter, but it doesn’t make sense for every business. Twitter is extremely useful if your objective is customer service, positioning the business as a thought leader by providing useful information, or engaging in ongoing dialogue with customers for a specific purpose – like building relationships or exploring product enhancements.
But if a business jumps into Twitter just to “try it,” watch out! Without a specific purpose a Twitter account can quickly become a strange and fairly useless mess. Or worse yet, it turns into:
- Random personal posts like “was late for a doctor’s appointment today” or “lost my car keys LOL”. This does not help your brand and is generally annoying to your customers.
- A constant stream of non-value-added advertising. Done well, targeted offers can be very effective (depending on the type of business). Done poorly, the company’s Twitter stream turns into a useless torrent of noise which not only turns off your customers, but could even drive them away.
- A dead wasteland. Sometimes companies tire of their Twitter account and just stop updating it. The result is an outdated, stagnant feed which reflects poorly on the business. Customers can still find the Twitter page, but upon arriving there they see that the company has abandoned it, leaving a poor impression.
So before deciding to start a Twitter account, businesses should be clear on their objectives and should be willing to put in the energy to keep the page current. Twitter is a very active platform, so customers expect at least several posts a week (depending on your industry). Those posts need to be interesting and aligned with your brand’s personality and core messages.
On the plus side, Twitter can be a tremendous resource for businesses:
- Twitter represents an opportunity to have a real-time conversation with customers quickly and easily
‒ 500 million users, 750 tweets per second
‒ Able to convey a “personality” for your brand
- It’s a good opportunity to interact with customers and build loyalty
‒ 83% of people who received an answer to their Twitter question/complaint “liked” or “loved” the fact that the company took time to respond to them
Many brands use Twitter to position themselves as an “expert” or “thought leader” in their field by sharing informative articles. Others use Twitter as a portion of their customer service strategy. As shown above, people who receive an answer to their question can become strong advocates – but be careful! People who don’t receive an answer can be very negative. And their expectations are high; on average, consumers expect an answer on social media within 60 minutes.
Twitter is a great resource for real-time conversations with your customers if you can commit the time and energy to do it well.
GOOGLE+ / GOOGLE+ LOCAL – the hidden opportunity
Many small businesses we speak to haven’t heard about Google+ Business pages or Google+ Local. There is not enough room in this post to explain the intricacies of Google+ and Google+ Local (yes, those are two different things), so instead here is the 100,000 foot view:
- Google+ business pages include the usual “social networking” type of functions. Example of a Google+ Business page: https://plus.google.com/u/1/100488659626512206590/posts
- Google+ Local pages are like a business listing. They were previously called “Google Places” if you are familiar with that product. Example Google+ Local page: https://plus.google.com/u/1/117968005326753949587/about
I know – it’s totally confusing and uncharacteristically complicated for Google. There is quite a bit of additional detail which I won’t attempt to cover here. If you are interested in finding out more, Google has quite a bit of information on their help pages.
Here’s where it gets interesting – the Business and Local pages can also be merged, which has been done very nicely by the Chicago Music Exchange. As you can see, merging the two pages results in a sort of “super” business listing which has all the social networking functions plus the in-depth business information.
So now you’re probably wondering “why would I do this in addition to Facebook – aren’t they just the same thing?” The answer is one word: search.
Because of the social functions available, many people think of Google+ as a social network – and it is – but the real point of building a Google+ page from a small business perspective is to improve search engine optimization. A well-done Google+ page acts as a powerful business listing which Google indexes very well in its search results – in essence, you are teaching Google about your business. The end result is improved visibility in search, particularly when someone conducts a search with a local parameter such as postal code, city or neighborhood name.
97% of consumers search online for local businesses, 20% of searches on Google are related to location
Google+ Local is an opportunity to create a “super” business listing which shows up really well in search – and it is free.
PINTEREST – the new kid
In a nutshell, it is essentially a virtual pinboard that lets users organize and share interesting things they find on the web. It is very photo-heavy, which lends itself well to businesses that have strong visual elements like restaurants, travel agencies or retailers. It has come on very strong in an amazingly short period of time, surpassing other, better known social networks practically overnight. And best of all – it drives results:
- Pinterest has surpassed Twitter, Bing, StumbleUpon in traffic referrals
- 21% of users say they’ve purchased something they’ve seen on the site
There are a slew of statistics posted on Pinterest if you’re interested in finding out more.
Pinterest is not for everyone, but if your business has a highly visual element then it should be under strong consideration, if for no other reason than its success at converting “pins” to sales. Professional sports teams have been quick to jump on Pinterest to sell merchandise and connect with fans. The Pittsburgh Penguins do a pretty nice job, as an example. (Visually rich brands should also consider Instagram and Youtube as part of their social strategy.)
The nice thing about Pinterest is that it is less labor-intensive than many of the other networks. It needs to be actively managed, but not in the same “real-time” way as Facebook or Twitter. The consumer experience on Pinterest is much more relaxed from a community management perspective. However, this also means that Pinterest is not as useful for building a real “community” around your brand.
So – which one is “the best”?
The answer is that there is no “best” social network for all brands. Your business goals and the habits of your customers will dictate what social network(s) may be most useful for you.
To recap, the main considerations when deciding on your social networking strategy include:
1) The nature of your business
- If you are in a business that lends itself to photos / video then Pinterest, Instagram and YouTube should be under consideration for you.
- If, however, your business is more news/information driven, Facebook and Twitter are strong contenders.
- If you focus on B2B, LinkedIn may be your ideal platform.
2) Who you are attempting to reach
- If you are a B2C company targeting a wide range of consumers, Facebook is as likely option.
- If you are targeting a technical crowd, Twitter is a possibility.
- If you are a B2B company, consider LinkedIn.
- If seeking a youth audience, consider smaller or niched networks such as Instagram.
3) What your marketing objectives are
- Brand yourself as a thought-leader in your sector by using Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
- Solicit product feedback through Facebook and Twitter.
- Sell merchandise using Pinterest.
4) Your resources / budget
- If your budget is limited, you can try to get the most bang for your buck with one or two large networks such as Facebook or Twitter. However, the challenge with this approach can be that there is a lot of competition for attention – you become a dribble in the ocean. So in some cases it might make sense (depending on your answers to the above questions), to focus on having a larger presence in smaller networks such as Google+ to make a bigger impact.
- If you have a bit more budget, consider pursuing smaller and/or niche networks such as Pinterest or Instagram in addition to Facebook, Twitter and other large networks to gain greater overall scale.
There is no doubt that social networks provide a valuable resource to small businesses. Never before has it been easier or more cost-efficient for businesses to have a direct conversation with their customers on a one-to-one basis. With that ease of access, it is important that your business is clear on its brand personality, core messages and objectives. Managed poorly, social media can hurt your business more than help it.
With this in mind, it is important that as you consider your options that you are sure to:
- Have a clear picture of your goals and objectives going in. Don’t jump into social networking just to “do it and see”. Know what you want to achieve so you can set goals and targets.
- Actively manage your network – don’t leave it to stagnate, as this can hurt your brand in the long term. If you do not have a professional community manager on your team source one, or at least ensure your team has adequate training to be effective.
- Stay current. As social media evolves so will your opportunities. Be sure to stay abreast of new opportunities to engage with your customers and pursue sales.