How does a small business move into social media marketing?

I recently received this excellent question from one of my students:

Big global companies usually have a social media department but medium and small companies usually add this job for some marketing or PR manager in addition to his area of responsibility or hire some cheap employee or intern — with negative results.  So how should a small business with limited resources realistically approach social media marketing?

The time and resources needed to be effective in social media is certainly a problem for companies big and small. I think we can burst the bubble by now  — social media is NOT free. In fact, large brands are devoting a significant part of their marketing budget into these efforts.

There seems to be no choice — most companies must develop some competency in this channel. In addition to the obvious reason that social media has become a preferred method of communication (and complaining) for many demographic groups, other marketing channels are drying up.

The transition to a social marketing mindset is difficult for companies of any size!  One huge consumer goods company laid-off 1,500 marketers last month because they didn’t have the right skillset to move into the future. Another global brand I work with has literally tested the digital competency of every marketing person in their company. Low scorers are going through mandatory training, medium scorers are going through advanced training and even high scorers are going through a series of “TED talk”-like seminars.

These represent two strategies toward this transition — jettison ineffective resources or aggressively re-train them.

But let’s get back to the original question, what if you’re a small business and have very few resources to begin with?  How do you make this transition?

The big difference is, as a small business owner, you have less room for error.  You probably don’t have the luxury of hiring a new team to create a social media effort.  So here are some ways to minimize the risk during this transition:

1) Do a reality check. Before committing to a new plan, conduct a simple survey or get out and talk to your customers. Where are they spending their time?  What are your competitors doing?  Keep in mind that there is probably a first-movers advantage for many businesses so don’t overlook the fact that creating a competency in social media marketing could be a source of competitive advantage.

2) Learn. To move ahead with social media for your business, you don’t have to be an expert, but you do have to learn enough to at least ask the right questions.  If you’re just starting out, here is a video series that can help get you quickly up to speed on the basics:  Social Media From Scratch.

3) Set real goals. What are your company’s critical needs right now? How can some of these new social media opportunities specifically align with your goals? Don’t get caught up in the hype. Your budget probably does not have much room for “extra,” so think through how this activity will best move the needle for your business.

4) Get professional help. 95% of the companies I see engaging in social media are simply checking a box and not getting much out of the effort. In other words, they had somebody’s cousin create the company Facebook page.  For the first six months, it usually makes sense to invest in a marketing professional to give you some guidance and speed you through the learning curve.

It’s like strapping yourself to an instructor the first time you skydive. After a couple trips, you’re ready to go it alone. When seeking expert help, ask this question: What previous marketing experience do you have and can you show me measurable results of your social media efforts? That will weed out most self-proclaimed “gurus!”

5) Don’t view social media as an “add on.” Before you hire a new social media team, I would first look at where you are spending your current budget and resources – is it time to simply re-adjust?  For example, spending on newspaper advertising has declined by 75% in the US (down to 1950s levels).  If you have been spending much of your time on traditional forms of advertising, it might be time to move those resources to something else. You have to go where your customers are.  Should you re-allocate?  If you just pile more work on to existing employees this will probably fail.

6) Re-frame the opportunity. Here is some good news. Ten years ago, you would take out an ad and wait for something to happen. Today, literally every employee can be involved in “marketing” as a beacon for your company on the social web. It’s a new way of thinking, isn’t it? How can you capture employee incremental time or down time? How can you involve and engage the many networks of your employees, customers, and other stakeholders?

Another way to re-frame the opportunity is that marketing through the social web can possibly be a great equalizer for small businesses. For a little bit of time and effort, you can potentially have a very powerful impact and possibly reach vast new audiences.

7) Realistic expectations.  For many small companies, the result from social media marketing is more like the long-term benefits of networking at a chamber of commerce meeting than the short-term benefits of issuing a coupon in the newspaper. Don’t get me wrong — short-term benefits are certainly possible — but in general, aim for long-term benefits such as increasing customer loyalty.

I’ve worked with many small businesses and start-ups so I know how painful and risky these marketing decisions can be.  I’d love to hear from you. What additional recommendations would you give a small business trying to make begin a social media marketing program?

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