I participated in three panel sessions about social media as part of an AMEX/SCORE event geared to small business owners in Denver, CO. After spending the day talking to entrepreneurs about how to start and grow their business using social media, it became clear that many of the attendees are eager to use these new tools but are unsure of where to start.
There were some very specific concerns that are worth sharing here because they shouldn’t keep anyone from using such an accessible, affordable marketing channel:
Negative feedback: In every session, someone voiced concern that participating in social media would make them more vulnerable to criticism. It’s true that social media forums make it easy for folks to complain, but they are probably doing that whether or not you have Twitter feed. In fact, opening up such a direct line of communication actually gives you three advantages.
First, you have a chance to address an issue with your customer instead of leaving it unresolved out in the ether because you didn’t know about it. Second, you have an opportunity to demonstrate integrity and build credibility by acknowledging the problem, soliciting feedback on how to fix it, and then taking steps to mitigate any damage. Third, once you have built a community of followers, they will often act as third-party ambassadors, either correcting misperceptions or sticking up for you when the charge is unfair or mean-spirited.
Social media is impossible to control. All you can do is be authentic in your message, act with integrity, and commit to total transparency. It may seem hard sometimes, but it’s really in your best interest to do those things for reasons apart from your social media strategy.
Personal vs. professional: A lot of people are concerned about letting professional contacts see their personal pages or Twitter feeds. Of course, you can always set up separate accounts, or make a personal page for yourself and a business page page for the company. Here's the thing about that approach: I know that it seems neater to keep the two separate, but in practical terms, it just doesn’t make sense to me because it’s hard enough to keep up with one set of accounts, let alone two. Plus you’re missing out on potential connections by excluding folks just because you don’t think of them in terms of work.
Content-wise, it’s actually nice to mix promotional content with personal tidbits; it gives customers a chance to know the person behind the product. From a business development point of view, there is nothing to lose. Your personal network may very well include people who are in a position to hire or refer you. And the fact is, if a client or customer is on Facebook and finds your business page, they will very likely also try to “friend” you, and it would be very bad form to ignore or deny that request.
Embrace the holistic nature of the channel and keep the updates clean. You should be careful about what you post anyway, given the “flexibility” in privacy controls; always assume that everything you say could be public or visible in Google. Be prepared to talk to friends and family who leave public messages that may seem inappropriate to your professional contacts – yes, that means you may have to moderate every now and then by deleting a post that should have been private.
Limited resources: There is no doubt about it – social media takes time. This is probably the most difficult challenge for small business owners who are already overextended. On the other hand, the more time you put in, the more you will get out of it. The key is to invest in those tools that make the most sense for you.
Figure out where your customers are and then try to set up tools that make it easy for you to keep up. Are they really going to check a blog on your website? Or can you reach more folks through Facebook and Twitter? In the latter case, remember that you can link your accounts, so that updates on one will appear on the other. On the other hand, it may be easier to build a following with blog that gives you more room to write about your mission and passions. You also become part of a community of bloggers that is often eager to support each other by linking to entries, guest—blogging, and participating in cross-promotions.
Investigate where your competitors and colleagues are – chances are, you can tap into their audiences simply by joining the same platform. If you aren’t sure, try the revolutionary tactic that my co-panelist, @jessconstable, suggested: Ask them.
Like any medium, social media seems intimidating and overwhelming when you are wading in for the first time. Remember that behind every blog, profile and handle, there is a person who is interested in issues, participating in dialogue, and looking for a new fan. It’s pretty much like living in a neighborhood, working in a company, or having a party – you’re there because you want to be and as long as you’re respectful, your contribution will be welcome.