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5 Social Media Lessons Gleaned from a New SMB Study

Thursday is guest post day here at Duct Tape Marketing and today’s guest is from Frank Strong, director of Public Relations, Vocus – Enjoy!

There is no shortage of social media advice.  Unfortunately, much of it is often at odds, conflicting and even confusing.

For example, consider scheduling tweets.  A quick Google search will return many passionate arguments both for – and against – the case for scheduled tweets. Proponents point out automation allows them to space out their social posts to avoid inundating their followers. Meanwhile, opponents say it can lead to disastrous results when these posts coincide with unforeseen events.  There’s always room for middle ground.

While such advice comes with a great deal of experience and has points of merit, it often also comes with the unique and perhaps, narrow perspective specific to that person or organization.

This is why sound research is so important and why we teamed with Duct Tape Marketing to conduct a statistically valid social media survey of small- and medium-sized businesses (SMB). As we have studied the data over a course of several weeks, we have come to several conclusions based on research.

Here are five lessons we have learned from the study:

1.  You have to find your own path to influence.  Social media users are almost spiritual about the ‘right’ way to approach social promotion.  Many believe that building a tighter, highly engaged community is the best approach – it is a concept I subscribe to as well.  However, 27% of SMBs reported focusing on building a very large number of followers or fans on social media, regardless of interaction.  While this flies in the face of conventional social media wisdom, this same group was also more likely to say that social media has been very helpful for their business.  This is a testament to the fact that every business is unique: What works for one, may not work for another.  We all face different challenges in terms of industry, budget and finite resources and have to experiment to decide what will work best for us.

Lesson:  Listen, study, and observe what others are doing, but do not be afraid to go against the grain and try something different.  After all, that is what entrepreneurs often do best.

2.  Social works, but only with effort.  Most SMBs believed that social media was moving the needle for their organization. Fifty-eight percent said social media had been somewhat helpful, while almost one-third said it was very helpful. Just 10% said it had no impact.  However, there is a clear correlation between effort and results:  Those that were more willing to work at social media saw better results.  Entrepreneurs understand this concept. In many ways, it is the very reason they decided to strike out on their own.  Social media can be productive and it certainly takes an investment of time. Those that invest the time are more likely to see a return in the long run.

Lesson:  When committing to social media, keep in mind it is a marathon, not a sprint.  An aspiration of a quick hit that goes viral and leads to instant sales is setting you up for disappointment. 

3. Addressing customer service issues is an untapped opportunity.  Ninety-one percent of SMBs say they use social media to share news about their organization – the most common activity.  That is not surprising, since it is easy to share good news.  The least cited activity was managing customer service complaints, with just 46% of SMBs saying they engage in this activity online.  That is less than half and the reason is clear:  It is uncomfortable to address service complaints in such a public manner. Certainly there are different levels of customer complaints online – marketing strategist Peter Shankman breaks them down into five types – but more often than not, complaints represent an opportunity.  What opportunity?  It is the chance to resolve an issue and earn greater loyalty from the customer.

Lesson:  Addressing service complaints quickly may not just resolve the issue, but turn a customer into an advocate; there is a bonus in that those observing will credit you for addressing the matter.

4.  The challenge of dual hat responsibility.  Seventy-three percent of SMBs have added social media as an additional duty of an existing marketing person. In other words, they had a job, and then got a little more work on top of it. As your community grows, so too will the time demands of social media. How you resolve this challenge may vary – perhaps new tools, new efficiencies, or even new people. The danger of simply assigning someone an additional duty is in forcing people to do things that may not meet their natural abilities, skills or inclinations. Sure, we all have to roll up our sleeves and do grunt work sometimes, but it is the sort of commitment John Jantsch is referencing in The Commitment Engine Resources that we should be after.

Lesson:  Consider carefully who gets assigned social media as an additional duty; experience matters, but then so too does enthusiasm.

5.   Facebook dominates but keep tabs on emerging social sites. Google+ and StumbleUpon were ranked by fewer SMBs as effective social platforms for their engagement, but those that use them were also more likely to say they were very effective. It reminded me of the first solid case study I saw several years ago that used FourSquare, where a burger joint named AJ Bombers, had tapped the network with such success it captured national attention.  With social media, we do not simply build a presence and hope people visit. Instead, we go to where our customers and prospects are spending their time.

Lesson:  It may seem like everyone is on a platform, but it is important to understand if the users there are the people you want to engage. A less popular site may be the answer to driving business results.

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If there’s one overarching value proposition of engagement on social media, I would borrow a phrase from a respondent to this survey:  “It has allowed us to promote our products to people we may not have been able to reach normally.”  Indeed that is simply the power of the Web.  To download a copy of the survey please visit: Path to Influence: An Industry Study of SMBs and Social Media.

Frank Strong is the director of PR for Vocus. Find him on Twitter and the Vocus blog.