It's official. Two surveys in a row demonstrate the social media is confusing for businesses. There's a recent survey of small business owners that asks about their evaluation of social media, and the results indicate that they are confused as to whether or not they should be involved and whether or not social media has any impact on their business. Here are the key factors:
- "My customers want to hear from me on social networks" -- 25 percent agreed, 36 percent disagreed and 20 percent were undecided.
- "My customers spend time on social networking sites" -- 36 percent agreed, 20 percent disagreed and 27 percent were undecided.
- "Social media is a quick way to connect with prospective customers" -- 35 percent agreed, 28 percent disagreed and 22 percent were undecided.
Basically one third agree that social media is valuable and important, one third disagree and one third aren't certain. This is strange, and confounding.
Social media is one of the fastest growing online phenomenons, ever, even considering how quickly new technologies are adopted on the web. Facebook alone has over 400 million members. Sure, they may not be looking up small businesses on Facebook now. They are establishing their networks and exchanging information with friends and family and extended acquiantences. Over time, however, isn't it likely that you'll turn to your online friends for recommendations about places to eat, or drycleaners, or sites to see, or home repairmen? Why wouldn't you? We conduct these kinds of activities in the "real world" and Angie's list and Craig's list are good examples of both. Note that with Foursquare and Gowala and TripAdvisor, you can become the "mayor" of a restaurant or write up an excellent hotel or travel site. These too are social media sites.
As is Twitter and Linkedin and a number of other websites and locations. In fact, the concept of "social media" as site-based is going to give way to the concept that every web presence has some "social media" baked into it. If you can comment, or attach a recommendation or a tag, or vote on content, or edit and change content or invite others to participate with you, then that's social media. And increasingly every website has some component of those functions.
Then the question for a small business is: how do you want to interact with your customers? how do you want them to find you, to recommend you? How do you want to attract new customers and interact with your existing customers? Can you afford not to be in the social media space, when your current, and more importantly your future customers spend all their time in that social media space?
You may think social media is uninteresting or unimportant, but that doesn't mean your current and prospective customers think that way. It's a small step from interacting with friends in a social media setting to asking for recommendations or help from those friends. And if you aren't available or aren't engaged online, then you may miss potential opportunities or conversely may not be aware of what people are saying about you - rightly or wrongly.
This also points out another stumbling block - commitment and authenticity. You can't simply paste up collateral and call that a website - everybody understands that. Likewise you can't simply launch your company into a discussion among friends without seeming like you are pushing your wares into a conversation. But you can start conversations with your extended customer base and build networks of committed customers who want you to succeed and enjoy doing business with you, which will lead them to recommend others and build your prospect base. In other words, it has to be done carefully, with ongoing commitment, building credibility over time, just like the way a small business grows its business anyway. It's not a quick fix and it does take time. Get in and learn now, so that you can capitalize on the opportunities down the road.