Online Social Media the Key to Small Business Success?
In the early days of the Internet, it was touted as the new television (mass communication with minimal interaction), and then the new distribution channel (which worked out quite well for anything digital, but I’ve yet to get my pizza delivered through my DVD drive), and now online social media is the new “big thing.” In fact, it’s such a truly “big thing” that a number of marketing types are hyping online social media (yes, as in Facebook) as a critical element in the success of businesses, particularly small businesses (see a recent article by Brent Leary).
On the positive side, we know that connections are important in the business world, from sourcing products to hiring employees to finding paying customers, and social media may help us in those very tasks. But are there potential negatives to what appears to be a treasure chest of interactive golden opportunity? In fact, will this treasure chest end up a Pandora’s box that, once opened, will curse us with a continual need for attention?
Let’s ponder a few challenges about business use (particularly small business) of online social media:
1. What to do and how do we do it? Do we just “make friends” or do we actually need to “interact” with them? If we choose to interact (the likely choice), how do we do this? For example, does my dry cleaner need to start “liking” my status or commenting on my photos (“wow, that shirt looks well-pressed!”)? Do we try to start open dialogue with current and/or potential customers? Do we spend time updating our page with new info? Do we set up strict rules for our company’s “friendmaster” or do we offer wide leeway to facilitate a casual atmosphere and potential creativity?
2. How intimate do our online “relationships” become? Do we simply report back with info now and then with an occasional birthday e-card or do we (or our front-line online customer contact people) actually become something along the continuum between an acquaintance and a good friend? What happens when our friendmaster truly becomes friends with those online customers? Does the dynamic of our company-consumer relationship change? Or is it truly a company-consumer relationship, rather than an employee-consumer relationship and could this somehow get in the way of efficiency?
3. How public do we make our interactions? Do we carry on debates about our service quality in online forums and risk group consensus against us (which may spawn customer defection stories and sway readers to join them)? Or do we keep conversations in quiet whispers like we might do in dealing with a customer face-to-face? Do we let our competitors listen in?
4. How much time (time=money) do we spend on this? I’ve known teens who insist that they need 4 hours a day to keep current with their online friends and maintain only several hundred online friendships. What kind of time commitment are we talking about when a small business has several thousand (or many more) contacts who we are trying to move along the path to brand loyalty? Is true individual attention a required component of our online social media success or can we fake it clever market segmentation? If one teen needs 4 hours a day for 300 friends, would one business need 40 hours a day (that’s 280 hours a week or five 8-hour employees per day or with a 40-hour workweek 7 full-time employees) for 3,000 relationships? Likely not so much, but the question remains as to how much time would be spent.
5. What types of legal issues will arise as we build our online social community? Will our employee advice, relationships, discussions, etc. require us to seek legal counsel? Will the potential permanency of online communication help us or hinder us in terms of legal defenses? And what happens when inconsistencies in online interactions are deemed discriminatory by customers?
Obviously these questions depend on the type of business (e.g., service- vs. goods-focus; target markets; one that can offer coupons to its “friends” versus one that shuns “price-off” or “value-added” promotions with concerns about reducing the prestige factor of the brand; and other types of delineations). But whatever the business, going social online likely entails much more than expected, and once your online social business presence is established, it may be quite difficult to take a vacation without a few thousand of your best online friends tagging along.