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Sample social media conversation with a small business owner

September 21st, 2011 | by Klaus Holzapfel |
Antique three-column full-keyboard cash register.

Image via Wikipedia

A recent post at eMarketer showed that many small businesses (SMB) are struggling with seeing real value in engaging in social media. In a survey, 43% stated using social media is not necessary to their business, 14% said they don’t know enough about it and 24% said they do it when they have time. Only a mere 12% stated social media is a must and they do it all the time. That’s only 1 in 8 business owners!

You or one of your friends might belong to the vast majority of these owners that are not serious social media marketers or chose to ignore it entirely. I’d would like to acknowledge you and say “I get it”. Whatever you’ve heard or learned about social media so far has, obviously, not made enough sense for you to make it a significant part of your marketing efforts.

Maybe you have heard about some of the success stories of smaller businesses on the web, but they sound like someone winning the lottery. Obviously, that’s not something you’d want to bet your business on.

However, there is value to social media for any business. My conversation with non-social media converts often follow a certain path, starting with a fairly general statement like this:


SMB: “I don’t have time or money for this and I don’t see how this applies to a small business owner like me.”

I understand you have a relatively short “must see results” span. Unlike larger businesses with big budgets, you have to have a stronger focus on tangible benefits. You want to know what the return on your investment (ROI) is. Softer ways to measure success via Key Performance Indicators (KPI) don’t have too much appeal to you.

You’re much more interested in customers walking through your store and making purchases, than general brand building techniques and awareness campaigns. You have neither time nor patience for trying out new things that might work… but possibly won’t. You’re careful, and certainly wouldn’t put too many eggs into your basket (unless you know it’s secure).

One negative experience might be all you’d need to prove to yourself and others that social media just doesn’t work for your business. But just in case you’re willing to give it one chance, keep reading.

You might not want to hear there isn’t a social media wonder drug for success. Plus there’s no cookie cutter solution for you. Truthfully, it’s hard work and requires persistence, just like so many other aspects of your business.

You or someone else started the business that you are running. That took guts. Running a business also takes guts. You make choices every day that affect the future of your business. Entering the world of social media is just another step. Depending on your position and strategy, it could be just another addition to your marketing efforts or it could transform your business model. How about taking it one step at a time? Analyze your status quo and look at the potential opportunities.


SMB: “How would I even get started? And what would I be talking about?”

Finding the answer to that requires a little research. My analysis usually starts with a set of questions. Some of it might seem irrelevant, but it will all tie together in the end:

  • How much do you currently spend on marketing and how is this money being used?
  • What does your working day look like? How about your employees?
  • What hardware do you currently use (computers, phones, tablets)?
  • What promotions have you done in the past?
  • Plus a whole set of questions specific to the business (clients, products, business background…).

This data should lead us to some answers to the following questions:

  • What’s your social media story?
  • How are you unique?
  • How do you provide value to your customers?


SMB: “That’s a nice conversation to have. Your questions show you understand what I’m dealing with. What would be my next steps?

Answering the above questions leads to the next challenge:

  • How do you best communicate your story?
  • How do you turn this into measurable results?
  • What online and mobile communication channels are best suited for your business?
  • What are some tangible goals?
  • Plan to build a mailing list?
  • Want to add connections to a Facebook Page?
  • Are you receiving reviews on Yelp and other business review sites?

The plan would be to identify the channels that will work best for you, and focus on these. The right number could be anywhere from 2-5. It’s not a requirement to be on every social network, we’d simply focus on the most relevant ones like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Foursquare, Yelp, Groupon or LivingSocial and LinkedIn. Those often make the most sense for most SMBs. Again: we’d pick the ones that matter the most to you.

In this planning phase, we’d also be working on a list of conversation topics. What content could be shared with an audience? This sounds trivial, but it’s crucial to stay focused and find the right mix between promotional and informational content that can be easily generated. What is relevant for your audience? What would they expect to hear from you? What’s your expertise and how does it relate to your audience? This list will look entirely different depending on who you are. Vintage stores, hair salons or art galleries each have different needs and opportunities.


SMB: “I rely on word-of-mouth (WOM).That’s what works best for generating new business.”

Business owners cite word-of-mouth as their most important marketing tool. They’re correct. Word-of-mouth is a very important–if not the most important–element for many businesses. You know people probably walk into your store because someone else told them about you. They’ll often tell you about it, and it’s always great to hear. Besides traditional offline word-of-mouth, we also need to look at online word-of-mouth potential. It’s one of the big cornerstones of our modern Internet. Would you know if customers are talking about you online? Should you know about it?

These days, there’s a fairly strong connection between online and off-line word-of-mouth. This is where the conversation disconnect with SMBs often happens. Building a bridge between online and offline word-of-mouth can be a major success factor for your online marketing efforts. We call this cross-media marketing.

You do know that at least some of them spend quite a bit of their time online. They talk about all kinds of things, like what they feel strong about, what they like and what they don’t. And they’ll often share deals they’ve found, or little tricks they’ve discovered, because it makes them look good and helps their friends. This is where you can plug in, just like in real, offline life.

All big success stories on the social web are based on successful word-of-mouth. This is really not that different from what you’re doing offline, if you’re doing a good job. The difference is the online version of word-of-mouth is scalable and can become “viral”. You won’t have to do all the talking, nor do your direct customers. Their friends will carry on the conversation, IF the story is good enough.

We call these conversations that happen online “many-to-many” conversations: many people talk to many others. This is like a big marketplace. Imagine a big commotion on an open space close to your store. Wouldn’t you be curious to see what they’re talking about? What if they’re talking about you? Wouldn’t you want to join the conversation?

Maybe you heard about that food Belgium Waffle food truck in New York with over 16,000 Twitter followers, 8,000 Facebook fans and  over 600 reviews on Yelp, even though you’ve never visited the city? Wondering why we’re bringing them up? Enter “Belgium Waffles New York” or “Belgium Waffles Truck” into Google and guess who pops up first. What if one of your friends is visiting NYC and has a sweet tooth? You might mention it to him. Once he returns, ask him to tell you how he liked it. You’re carrying on their conversation, despite never being a customer yourself.

This is just one example. You might hear and read about the big brands successes that sound out of your reach. They usually use big advertising $$$ to secure the success of their efforts. But you have an advantage over them: you don’t need hundreds of thousands of people to listen to you to be successful.

In the end, you’re left with three potential online word-of-mouth strategies:

  1. Do nothing and let others run and control the conversation.
  2. Rely on the existing word-of-mouth and don’t participate, but encourage your clientele to mention you online on Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, etc….
  3. Combine step 2 with actively engaging and joining the conversation. Become part of the talk about you, your products and your market segment.


SMB: “What if people are negative about me and my business?”

It’s a fact: not everyone will talk positive about your business. But if you’re doing a good job, this will be a small but very important minority. It’s important to acknowledge these people. Take this critique – no matter if justified or not – as an opportunity. Showing them and everyone else you care about their opinions can actually be a very positive signal to other potential customers. Be honest and sincere. Converting someone from an angry or critical customer to a satisfied one can be very rewarding. Often, these people turn into some of your strongest brand ambassadors. I can coach you through the steps and show you how it’s done.


SMB: “Sorry, but I really want to know exactly what happens with my marketing $$$.”

Once you have an potential action plan, it’s time to look at your potential rewards. You certainly understand ROI, but how about KPI? It’s fairly easy for you to measure foot traffic and total sales.

Online marketing will require you to look beyond this. The truth is, the connection between an action of yours and your desired reaction (=sale) is often indirect and a little harder to track. You could just ambush people online and tell them to buy your product or else, but the path to success is much more subtle and nuanced than that. This doesn’t mean you’re flying totally blind. A lot of things you do can’t be measured in terms of hard ROI. Instead, we use Key Performance Indicators to measure what works and what doesn’t. In very simple terms, you could begin to look at the number of comments you receive on something you post on Facebook? Do those numbers go up or down? What kinds of posts are best received? Are you able to trigger people on any calls of action, like offering a coupon? Do people use those? Will they tell you their opinion when you ask them about their experience after they purchased a product of yours?

Keep in mind, many of your existing marketing efforts might provide you with much less trackability than your potential online efforts. What does a print ad do for you? How much is your membership in the Chamber of Commerce worth? How about sponsoring a local sports team or running a radio ad? Unless you build in an element that lets you track results (i.e. a coupon turned in), you’re flying blind with most of your offline marketing efforts as well.


SMB: What’s going to happen, in your opinion, if I were to do nothing?

You might already benefit from social media marketing without even being aware of it. There might be talk about you online (positive or negative) you don’t see. There might also be talk about your direct competitor from down the street you should tune into as well. At the very least, business owners need to stay informed. Today, monitoring social media is often just as essential as any other news source out there.

Owners who will get social media right will eventually have the upper hand over their competitors. They’ll get more press coverage and win online votes for best business awards. Some of them might really see their businesses take off, and will quickly drive some of their competitors out of the market by growing into chains.

Others will not grow exponentially, but will simply be more successful than their competitor down the street. They will also have a more affluent clientele, since this often correlates to a more tech-savvy social media audience.

Some businesses are so magic they’ll even exist without the use of a computer in 100 years from now. If you are in that ballpark, I wouldn’t recommend changing a single thing about your secret sauce. If you make the best cake in the world, are a 5th generation owner, are located on Times Square and the world raves about it online and offline, you’re set. But don’t fool yourself and think you belong into that ballpark if you really don’t.


SMB: What if I were to move on?

Neither one of us like to make decisions and then change our minds. I am asking you to take a “social media readiness test” and ask yourself:

General Approach

  • Are you willing to spend some of your time every day on social media tasks, or delegate them to one of your employees?
  • Are you willing to deal with setbacks and apply some trial-and-error?
  • Are willing to tune in, listen and learn what others have to say in an empathetic way?
  • Are you (and your team) ready to try some things out of the ordinary?
  • Are you willing to look at social media as a concept stretching beyond hard sales and also value other potential benefits such as market research and product development?

The Basics

  • Do you have regular online access during your business hours, or are you willing to get it set up?
  • Have you looked at the social media efforts of your competitors?
  • Do you know how to monitor the conversation about your business?
  • Have you established some ways to measure the success of your efforts?
  • If not: are you willing to set up the necessary tools?
  • Do you have a contingency plan for when things get busy? Can you handle additional demand?

Your Customers

  • Are our customers even using social media?
  • Do you believe in educating your customers and share some tips and tricks?
  • Are you being asked the same questions over and over again and would like the chance to answer many customers at the same time?
  • Have you identified other ways you can provide benefits to your target audience?
  • Have you identified ways to benefit from your audience engaging with you online?

If the answer to these questions is yes, I’d consider you to be a strong candidate to enter the social media landscape.

Need some more proof? One of our customers was recently mentioned in a social media infographic at Mashable, the leading social media blog in the world. Even as a SMB they were mentioned as a success story right next to some of the biggest brands in the world (see showcase #6 at the bottom of the graphic). This was by no means a zero budget campaign but it wasn’t a 6-digit project either . Over 5,000 product samples were shipped and our involvement was fairly extensive. You can learn more about the nie wieder bohren showcase and our website.

After all this reading, engaging in social media might still not make any sense to you. That’s just fine and I still value and respect you as part of the business community.

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