For a local business, global platforms like Facebook and Twitter create some of the same challenges they faced with mass media. Buying in a national publication meant wasting money on impressions that weren’t geographically in your area. Buying in local publication meant investing much the same work to create the ad only to have it reach far fewer people in a reduced circulation. Speaking this week to small businesses in Raleigh and Richmond, it became clear that this same dilemma was on their minds in terms of investing in social media. Reading the same headlines we all do, these business owners acknowledge that the world is irreversibly moving in the digital direction, but when and how deeply they should jump into social media was a very open question.
For a local company it’s an important question too. Small businesses don’t have the budget, manpower or annual revenue to afford much experimentation. They can’t sustain ‘a couple slow quarters’ in revenue while tinkering with new tools to grow business. And most small businesses don’t get an infusion of investor dollars to grow their company with. Most of the time if something needs to be done, they roll up their sleeves and do it themselves.
With 52% of America’s population working in small businesses, the question of when and how to use social tools today is an important issue on a national level. Especially since these small businesses also can’t sustain the diminished returns coming from traditional media which get more expensive even as they become less effective.
It’s like installing a phone line, not like buying advertising.
So when should a small business jump into social media? Actually, my recommendation is not to jump at all, but rather to step in a little at a time. Small businesses can’t ignore social because it’s become a part of how we all shop for and consume products and services. If a small business doesn’t move into social now, it will be harder to do in two years. By the same token, small businesses are more fragile. Introducing too much disruption to workflow at one time can have significant adverse effects.
Unlike advertising, employing social tools means an operational change in how business is done. I try to explain it with an analogy; using social media is like installing a phone line, not buying an ad. When you buy an ad, you create it, run it, and wait for the phone to ring. When you use social media you install a new communications tool. You have to tend to it. No one installs a phone in their office and then just leaves it there. Social media works the same way. So it’s going to add to your workload. The trick is to add it to your workload in a way that can be absorbed by the business and which provides some return for the added effort.
Social media is also more like a referral mechanism than a sales call. No one goes to Facebook to be pitched, yet to a small business owner accustomed to working the phones, this environment is both a little foreign and slow to show revenue. Nonetheless, it is a new reality. Very few of us buy anything from cold calls. When the time comes to buy, we go through our decision making process. Until we’re ready to buy though, we don’t actively shop for things. That means the job of the business is to nurture a relationship during the periods when the prospect is not actively shopping. Doing so positions the business to be top of mind when the time comes to make a purchase decision. Social media is great for this, but to the hard-numbers sales guy that is a tough pill to swallow.
When I asked the business owners who were seeing growth with social media about their experience, they said it was like planting seeds. Those seeds took months, sometimes even a year or more, to germinate, but once they did, there was a shift. More referrals. More engagement. And ultimately more sales. It took patience and nurturing to get there.
Patience and nurturing in a ‘get it done today’ world.
That’s the big irony of selling in this say and age. Everyone in business, from Wall St. to small business owners, is under pressure to sell now, close deals and make numbers. Meanwhile the evolution of selling tools like social media, because they acknowledge the consumer’s ultimate control in the buying process, aren’t organized around the salesman’s deadlines but rather the consumer’s buying habits. These habits are impacted by individual details like need, budget, time to shop, etc. and care little for what sales goals the company has in mind.
Outside the New Yorks of the world, the transition toward social has been more gradual, or at least less all-consuming. That means for the majority of small businesses, it’s important to strike a balance. Now is the time to begin setting up shop in social media. Now is the time to work out the kinks in how you operationalize social media. If you put it off for another few years you’ll be that much further behind.
It is not, however, wise to abandon your tried and true (even if less effective that they used to be) traditional sales tactics. Events, local advertising and even yellow pages ads can still be relevant to some audiences in some markets. It’s more a matter of recognizing that those media are sunsetting as social is rising. This is a transitional period and we all need to jump in the stream and ride the current.
I am encouraging small businesses to break down what appears to be a ton of work to ‘go social’ into simple, small, steps. Do a little bit each day. Over time your social presence will build and the seeds you plant now will germinate. The way you sell will change too, it has to because the way your customers buy is changing.
Starting now means that you will evolve with the media landscape, minimizing the effects of disruption while reaping greater benefits over time. Social media is not going anywhere. You have time to address it. You don’t have to get it 100% right on day one (which is good, because you won’t). The point is to start now, keep an open mind, and change as the world around you changes.
Social media is evolution, not revolution.