When Mark Zuckerberg sat in his dorm room and created Facebook he probably had no idea the pressure he would create for small businesses.
These days, small business owners are constantly told if they are not on Facebook and other social media networking sites then their business will die. There’s a frenzy to get “likes” on Facebook or create pages on Google Plus, where there are a reported 400 million registered users.
“They begin to feel an urgency that everyone is out there and there are those who are sharing success stories,” said Ted Robertson, owner of RCN Group Marketing Consultants. “Success in that world is measured by the number of likes on Facebook.”
But efforts to gain customers through social networking may overlook some more tested marketing strategies, Robertson and other marketing experts say.
Facebook, for example, will not fix bad customer service or a poorly made product, said Simon Salt, CEO of Texas-based IncSlingers and author of Social Location Marketing. Small businesses, especially those with limited marketing budgets, ought to focus on business basics — customer service, a solid business plan and good products. Then, they can enter the digital platform, he said.
“They’ve been promised the silver bullet and ultimately they are not getting it,” Salt said. “Social media is part of the puzzle, but that is not where the edge of the puzzle is — that is not where you start.”
The problem is confusion. In a recent survey of small business owners 90 percent said they dedicate time to networking online. In the same survey, however, 58 percent of small business owners said they struggle to find value in using Facebook to promote their business.
“Social media is first and foremost on their minds,” Robertson said. “They are asking, ‘would you come and talk to my group about social media?’ — they are challenged by social media.”
And social media is a time commitment, Robertson said. It is recommended that a business with a Facebook page or other social networking pages, add a new post two to five times a week.
“You can’t just put a brand page out there and expect something is going to happen,” he said.
It could take 40 to 60 hours to build the pages and then there are 120 to 200 sites where a business name and details can be listed for free or for a fee.
Social media also should not be thought of as one homogeneous concept that works for all small businesses, Salt said. And that could be why some small business owners leave workshop after workshop on social media techniques feeling uninspired.
“I would say for small businesses who are not selling stuff around the world, whose customers are local, their efforts are much better spent doing local marketing,” Salt said.
But small business owners are bombarded by marketing professionals who are telling them social media is a must — it’s a message small businesses can’t escape, Robertson said. And, that may add to the confusion, he said.
“In my opinion, there are too many people calling themselves social media marketing experts,” he said.
Colorado Springs is a closely networked town, Robertson said. That means small business marketing strategy must include some good old-fashioned hand shaking and meet and greets.
“Think of it as a political campaign — you are competing for name recognition,” he said.
A small business marketing strategy might also including community activities, like sponsoring events and raising money for local charities, he said.
“This town has been driven by personal relationships — it’s who you know,” he said.
And, customer service is the key to success in any business whether they have 10 “likes” on Facebook or 10,000, Robertson said.
“Once you get them through the door, you need to deliver customer service,” Robertson said. “Word of mouth is so powerful, especially in a town like ours.”
Allen Shipley has a website and a Facebook page for his small business, Carpet Care Craftsman. He admits he’s struggled with the idea of social media, especially with the time it takes to maintain the pages, he said. But he believes his best marketing strategy is customer service.
His business has grown 20 percent each year since 1998, with the exception of 2008 and 2009, he said. He attributes his business growth to the trust he’s built with clients, he said. For example, he has commercial clients that have hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of carpet and they had been replacing that carpet every three years. Under his cleaning program, the client doesn’t need to replace carpet until every 15 years. Shipley also has an Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification — which are required by many manufacturers’ warranty. Providing that kind of service gets around, he said.
“When I get a customer, this is why they stay with me, because I care about (the warranty),” Shipley said. “It’s my responsibility to make sure the warranty is not dishonored.”
Shipley, who started his business by himself with one van, has tried a variety of marketing schemes, he said. But, he always felt he was chasing jobs that he couldn’t nail down. Instead, he focused on his team, hiring folks who share his business philosophy, which includes good old-fashioned customer service, he said. If he feels his team failed a job, he won’t take money from the customer.
His business now has 11 employees.
“We grew by word of mouth,” he said.
Lisa West, marketing director at her family’s two O’Briens Carpet One Floor and Homes stores, likes to think of social media as building a database with their customers — their own word of mouth forum. She posts information relative to the business, but tries to have a fun too, by adding contests and giveaways.
“I absolutely see the importance, how vital it is to be in this type of forum,” she said. “Online reviews are the new word-of-mouth.”
Since O’Briens launched its Facebook page two years ago, the business has tracked tens of thousands in sales directly related to Facebook each year, she said. Social networking sites allow for easy cross promotion with other businesses or community organizations, she said. And her family uses Facebook to talk about a near-and-dear partnership they have with Colorado Springs Down Syndrome Association.
But Facebook is just one part of their overall marketing strategy, West said. She’s already looking to the next wave of QR codes and mobile apps, both marketing campaigns the business will launch in 2013.
“Facebook is a necessary part of the strategy,” she said. “As far as marketing, it’s something we invest in along with TV, Web, print — this is just one of the prongs.”
Social media is right for so many businesses and wrong for so many others, Salt said. Restaurants, for example, can benefit from photo sharing, which might not work for other industries.
“The downside of social media is that it is so pervasive,” Salt said. “In the past, businesses had networks based on physical presence — now the customer networks are huge.”
Salt is not downplaying the significance of social media, he said. But a small business shouldn’t put all their marketing eggs in that basket. A good way for a small business to enter the digital platform is simply making sure the free listings about their business on Yelp, YellowPages.com, FourSquare.com and Google are accurate.
But in the end the best small business marketing strategy comes down to customer experience, he said. A small business needs to take a look at customer service, be brutal about their business and listen to their customers, he said.
“I think a lot of small business advice groups bring in speakers who tell them about social media and small businesses are thinking about hiring social media consultants,” Salt said. “Stop. Think about how you can spend that money improving what you have.
“How about fixing the bathrooms or changing the decor or hiring someone who is as passionate about what you do as you are so that your customer gets a phenomenal experience and spreads the word.”
90 percent of small businesses are increasing their use of Internet marketing to grow business
74 percent find online networking just as valuable or more valuable than networking in person
Source: Manta, online site dedicated to small business.