So, this week, the regional press has been full of the findings of a survey conducted by the Forum of Private Business which, as I learned today, is a “not-for-profit organisation that can help with every aspect of running a business”. The survey apparently found that over half the Forum’s 5,800 members (UK) are using social media but of these, over half “expressed serious doubts about the value of the popular networking sites”.
Personally, I’m not that surprised by the stats; scepticism prevails when it comes to the value of social media. There’s nothing new in that but what does worry me is that in the rush to take a stand, I’m hearing a lot of people in business taking a dangerously short term view, either dismissing social media without testing it or testing it without thinking through the goals and giving it the time it needs. The Forum’s survey appears to reflect my experience.
As I have said before, social media is personal. That is, what works for one individual or organisation isn’t necessarily right for another. And there are certainly age groups and sectors that are slower to adapt and adopt. But a word of caution to small business owners/managers. Shun the social web at your peril. If you want to future proof your business, you simply cannot afford to ignore it. The young people who will fill the jobs and buy the products and services of tomorrow are social web literate. They expect to communicate, share, buy, sell and be entertained online, be it on their phone, laptop, ipad or whatever. This is the modus operandi they will bring to the workplace. In the same way that websites have become an imperative for business, so the social web will be key in future.
I am not advocating that every small business ploughs in to Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, LinkedIn and all the rest without reservation. Many factors need to be taken into account when planning a social media strategy. Not least, the availability of time and resource and the way it joins up with the wider PR/Marketing picture; traditional stuff does still work. My advice however, for those of you who are sceptical about the value of social media to your business, is to defer judgement. Spend some time researching and listening to what’s going on in the various networks before you dive in.
- Start with your closest competitors – their websites will tell you what they’re up to and whether they’re using social web tools at all – follow the links to see how they’re using them and if it looks like it’s working
- Throw the net wider – a quick Google using key search terms for your sector/product might identify other competition from unexpected places
- If you’re not already using it, sign up to Twitter under any old Tom Dick and Harry username (go incognito if you like), download something like HootSuite or Tweetdeck and monitor the chat around your key words, topics or events
- Search for competitors in LinkedIn – what groups are they active in? If they’re of relevance to you too, join, watch and/or get involved in the discussions.
- Tune into a few forums that attract chat about your sector, product or service – see who’s talking about what
You will be amazed what you can learn about your competition and your audience from listening and watching for a while. Take your time to form a view on the best approach for your business. And then, if you decide to put your toes in the water, be really clear about your objectives. Ask yourself:
- Are you in it for new business or do you want to use it to engage with your existing customers?
- How will you measure success?
Once you’re clear on these issues, start small and be realistic about your expectations. You won’t see results overnight and you do need to commit time to making it work.
Kate Magee’s recent feature in PR Week is a useful point of reference on Twitter strategy as it illustrates the different ways that some of the big corporate are using Twitter e.g. new business/marketing, crisis management and customer relations. Crisis management is less of an issue for small business but I would also add research to this list of potential functions.
So, to conclude, the social web is here to stay but it requires time, patience and a clear set of objectives. Don’t rush to judgement.