Small Thinking = Social Media Success


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.

Be nimble

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.

Be fearless

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?

Your Comments

  • Paul

    Great post, Lisa! You’ve summed up nicely why big companies have a giant problem figuring out social media. I’m not sure how many of them will ever be able to “act small”.

  • Zack Pike

    Lisa – Great article and I know this will hit home with many corporations… As long as the right person reads it. I deal with this very issue too much, and as you know, it’s frustrating.

    I especially loved your quote: “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.”

    That quote hits the nail on the head… Unfortunately, most big corporations just can’t swing the hammer.

  • Daniel Redman

    I agree in theory, because agility is definitely critical in SMM, but resource is another story. Unless you have the work ethic of Gary V., small businesses can’t usually be relied on for substantial staff bandwidth or social development resources (if we’re talking about something grandiose in scale).

  • Kieran

    Why are small businesses using social media? A main reason revolves around the ROI they get as they are more concerned with costs. Small business only do what works – they aren’t about branding, they are about results. Large businesses rely on a multitude of marketing channels to acquire companies – social media is part of the plan, but not THE plan. Making blanket statement when it comes to any marketing channel is only going to lead to misinterpretation – you have to look at not just the size of the business but what they do and how they do it.

  • Tim Speicher

    This reminds me of something I read awhile ago and still use to help describe why social media can “work” for a business. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I saw it to give proper credit to the author.

    All things equal, we like to do business with people that we know, like and trust.

    As Lisa said, small businesses are ALL about relationships. That’s just how we roll. (When we make the time to use it), social media is merely an extension of the stuff we’re already doing.

    Although this next point is really a deviation from the intent of this article, IMHO there is another takeaway here.

    As small businesses, it can be difficult to handle our growth as we become successful. Unless we’re aware of this fact, it’s hard to maintain the level of service and relationship our customers expect — what endeared them to us in the first place.

    This article clearly draws the line for me in terms of small vs large. I still don’t have all the answers to gracefully manage that growth while still maintaining what made us great to begin with — but this article certainly helps keep that concern top-of-mind.

  • David Zemens

    Nimble. That’s the secret.

    One huge advantage small business has over large business is the ability to be nimble, move quickly, and gain advantage in the wink of an eye. This is not only true of social media, but of general business operation in general.

    One of the advantages I have always thought I had over larger companies who do web design was that I can be “nimbler” than they can be. This holds true regarding social media as well.

  • Aussiewebmaster

    Your post reminds me of Mike Moran’s book Get It Wrong Quickly – great advice

  • Heather Villa

    Excellent post! Those are exactly the reasons customer prefer working and patronizing small companies.

    Be Your Customer – I really love this one. I base a lot of decision on how I would want to be treated as a customer. “Do unto others as you have them do unto you” really sums it up.

  • Susan Kaye Quinn

    Great post! I’ll be forwarding this to my small publisher! :)

  • Stephen Eugene Adams

    I agree with Daniel Redman. There is a significant difference in resource allocation between a small business and a large business. In a situation where the owner is the guy doing the SMM, consistency will not be the norm. As soon as a big order comes in, social media will be ignored. In a larger business, you see a dedicated person devoted to social media (that is until they are fired in an average of 4 months when they cannot prove the ROI). This also brings up the subject of whether the brand should be personal or under the company name. I think more small businesses use the personal brand which helps to achieve connection.