Friday, 14 January 2011

The Social Media Paradox or why SMEs have the advantage

I was having a discussion with a small business owner over the use of social media. His view was that it wasn’t worth investigating. His limited team couldn’t even start to compete with big business which has the resource to invest heavily in social media managers, operatives and agency support.

He felt it was pointless to even try as his best efforts could not match the inventiveness and scale of the campaigns he’s seen. The businessman had played around with some social media on a personal level but didn’t really engage heavily in it.

This approach led me to think whether this was true. It is hard to remember that only a few years ago, few businesses large or small engaged through social media and there was that window of opportunity where entrepreneurial spirit in the social media world allowed some small firms to rise to prominence.

Companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsico have gradually been shifting their massive advertising budget over to PR and online marketing campaigns. Look at a company like Dell sifting through social media data to continuously audit feedback and proactively eliminate customer complaints. Even government departments are spending vast amounts of money on ensuring their messages are being received and are monitoring how they are being discussed.

A company like Sony employs an agency to promote its activities in the social media world and its almost expected that a technology savvy company has integrated video, images and copy. Even the strict rules of the financial industry are being tested as banks, led by First Direct, are exploring how to best use social media tools to advise its customers and promote their products.

How could a small one man band operation compete with a promotion like Morphy Richards World Ironing Championships, for example.

If this were advertising or pure marketing, you might have a point, but there is a paradox with social media. The more successful you are at social media you become, the worse you are at social media. Whatever social medium you use, the point is to engage and interact with a community. Much of the work doesn’t even need to be done by yourself, as the community can do it for you.

Once you reach a critical mass, however, it becomes tricky to engage in the same way. Is it really possible to listen to the postings of 2,000 people in the same way you listen to 80? Can you respond to your followers in the same personal and well thought out way? Can you categorise your audience as neatly, ensuring you deliver to all of them.

The answer is no. There may even be a rise in the churn of your followers or an increase in spammers slogging up your social media accounts. With more people, there is a need for more time – and let’s remember it might not be your organisations raise en detra to use interact on the web.

The smaller firm doesn’t need to chase followers. They can establish a good core audience of loyal customers, suppliers and brand ambassadors. LEGO select a small handful of bloggers each year to review their products, and this tactic can work whatever your size.

I’ve always seen engagement as conversation in a pub, say. There’s a chap at the bar with a crowd around him, and he’s telling tall tales. The conversation might be entertaining, but the value is low. Two people can be having a business conversation in the corner planning an idea that will make them a fortune. Which conversation is more valuable? It’s a no brainer yet companies often get blinded by the numbers and miss the point. Would you rather one repeat buyer or a handful of one off purchases? Take the example of Millies’ twitter account in Leeds which ensures the family run shop remains distinctive and accessible to its loyal shoppers.

If you want to go big and escape the niche, there are examples of the SMEs that have gone big. Take Tailor Thomas Mahon and his blog, or Gary Vaynerchuk’s wine tasting videos. And how about the Creme Brulee Man and his twitter account.

If you’re still not sure whether to use social media to help your business, just join in, listen to your customers and engage with them. What’s the worst that can happen?

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