Last week local search expert Matt McGee had a quick post about the state of small businesses in social media. His post cited a recent eMarketer survey that showed small businesses were not only keeping up with social mid- to large-sized companies, they were actually beating them when it came to acquiring customers. The report found that nearly half of small businesses around the world had acquired a customer via social media, as compared to 28 percent of larger businesses with larger budgets.
Surprising? Not really.
For all its hoopla and shiny, social media is about turning your organization into a small business. It means forgetting how big you may be on paper, losing the pomp, and running your business with the mentality and focus of a startup. And that’s why large corporations often have a difficult time doing well, because they don’t remember how to do business that way. They’ve forgotten how to act small.
How do you do it?
Build failure into your culture
The biggest difference between a small business owner and someone who runs a big brand is the fear associated with failure. Big brands will do whatever it takes to not fail because, to them, failure means weakness and profit loss. To a small business owner, failure means innovation and growth. They fail every day because they’re learning every day. They’ll stick their neck out and take a risk that a medium-size company will not. People do great things when they’re not afraid of the consequences that come should they fall short. They also have less of a problem admitting failure. The power to take chances, combined with the chutzpah to own up to them, is a small business owner’s biggest strength.
Large businesses are at a great disadvantage in social media because social media waits for no one. It’s happening right now, all around you. Small businesses owners are lean enough that they can hop in, in the moment, with both feet. They don’t have to wait for legal to clear a customer service complaint. They don’t have to get approval before they say something on Twitter or post that blog entry. And that’s a huge advantage. Something I found really neat about the recent Old Spice ad campaign was that they were given freedom to create the videos without getting individual approval Basic guidelines were set, but that was it. There was no waiting 36 hours for someone to sign off. And the result was real-time conversation, 36 million views counting, and empty grocery shelves.
Be in the business of building relationships
Social media is about relationships. Being a small business owner is about relationships. Large businesses are about profit margins. Is there really any wonder why SMB owners trump them and brands trip over their feet? I didn’t think so.
Throughout history, success has been found when people were brave enough to act even though everything around them told them not to. Look at Disney. Look at the companies that were formed in last year’s recession. Success comes when you’re willing to be bold, to be seen, and to try things. And that’s something small business owners are really comfortable doing. They’ll read about something in a blog or industry newsletter, and then they’ll try it and figure out how they can make it work for their business. Larger brands will spend a year in meeting pre-calculating the ROI and brand risks. Being fearless may make you more likely to make a mistake, but it also lets you capitalize on momentum.
Sweat the small stuff
Small business owners go above and beyond to provide value for their customers. They’re always available, always looking to make good, and will put the experience above all else. They understand that it’s that experience that people come back for and what creates their brand. Large businesses believes that brands are created with money and sterilized ad campaigns. They think the small stuff doesn’t apply to them and treat their customers as if they are replaceable. In the world of social media, where you never know who you’re speaking to or how far their net reaches, this often gets large businesses into trouble.
Be your customer
Small businesses do a better job connecting with customers because they ARE their customer. They’ve created a business around a need and spend their entire day living and breathing that need. They don’t live in the bubble, they live in the grind. The benefit of that is you stay connected. It’s easier to engage and build relationships with customers when you are them. When you understand their needs, their concerns and their life, it’s easier to target them and present customers with something they’ll really respond to. As businesses get larger, they often forget that. They stop being human and start acting like a corporation. Corporations don’t belong in social media; people do.
Use an honest voice
Social media is about establishing a voice and using that voice to connect with people. The reason large businesses do as well is because they have a hard time developing this. And the reason for that is tied into everything listed above: There’s too much red tape, they don’t understand their customers, they’ve forgotten how to be human, etc. Small business owners have always had great stories and now they’re finding a voice in which to tell them. And that is the basis of their success.
My advice to any mid- to large-sized company looking to get involved in social media is often the same – act small. Social media has put the principles of “acting small” into the spotlight and rewarded them tenfold. As a mid- to large-sized brand, that should be the question you’re asking yourself. How do you act like a small business owner? Do you remember how to sweat the small stuff?
About the Author
Lisa Barone co-founded Outspoken Media in 2009 and served as Chief Branding Officer until April 2012.