WebProNews recently had a conversation with Shirley Tan of ECommerceFastStart.com, who says, "Social media is actually a level playing field for small business owners."
"Small business owners can really take control...[of] all their messaging and their branding, and really just engage their customers in a conversation, without having to hire expensive PR agencies," she says. "I think one of the advantages of being able to be on Facebook and Twitter is you can really actually have this conversation, and cut out the reports and the agencies..."
"You can actually be in the trenches, and be doing real, live, realtime suvreys," she points out. "People say, 'do online surveys.' Well you can actually be doing realtime online surveys with your customers, like right now, which is pretty amazing. It cuts the cost down. You can do it yourself or have some people in your company do it."
Some businesses tend to get caught up on the monetization factor of social media, and while it's not something to ignore, that's not all there is to it.
"I think one of the misconceptions [is]...the concept that it's expensive - that you need to have an ROI," says Tan. "I would use social media as a way of doing research - finding out what my customers are talking about - what products do they think are hot in the marketplace, and do I have that? And how can I leverage that hot trend, and make sure that I have it so my customers are speaking...about that product on my site and to their friends, enlisting them to be my soldiers out there, and be my salesforce out there on our behalf. I think that's something that's something that small business owners can do and should do."
One of the biggest reasons for a small business to utilize social media channels is just good customer service. If social media is a level playing field for businesses, you don't want to waste such an opportunity by ignoring customers. If you do, you might as well just tell them to buy from your big competitors or another small business that knows how to deal with their customers. The thing is, you won't have to tell them to do this. They'll just do it, and chances are you won't even know about it, because the conversation is happening in a place where you're not paying attention.
"First off, you really do have to start with a great product. So assuming that's the given, and you have a great brand, a great company - all the infrastructure in place, meaning that when you become very public in that way, you have your customer service in line - you have a policy in place," says Tan. "You know how you're going to be tackling issues when it comes up, and that you can take some of the customer service issues off air...you know, offline, but you need to be able to say, 'oh yeah, you know that order? We know where it is. Please call us. We'll follow through. We'll take care of it.' And be very public in that way, because once you do go out there in a public forum...you will be encountering those situations, and the key thing is to plan for it. Don't start something that you cannot sustain, and keep going."
Speaking of sustainability, this is something to consider when starting your presences on different social networks. While it's a good idea to be in as many places where your customers are as possible, you also don't want to bite off more than you can chew. If you're going to be there, you need to really be there.
"The key is not to do it all," says Tan. "Because it's not sustainable. It's not manageable. I would focus on the two most popular ones - Twitter and Facebook. Maybe just even Facebook, to start with. And really have a game plan going of how you're going to approach it - how you're going to tackle it on the front end as well as the back end - meaning how your people are going to work it through their processes in working with it through the public - that public, public forum."
If this is the approach you take, you can get an idea of just how manageable your social media efforts are. Maybe then you can decide if you have the capabilities and resources to expand into other venues. For that matter, it may make more sense to start with other communities even before Facebook or Twitter, depending on who your audience is and what your goals are. You may have greater success engaging with people in a niche forum, for example.