Social media: an imperative for small businesses

Image by Khalid Albaih

Image by Khalid Albaih

Every so often, I have a conversation with someone from a small or medium size company who says ‘Social media – it’s ok for big companies with lots of money and customers, but I’m not really sure what we’d use it for, to be honest.’

Which is interesting, because actually I think the exact reverse is true – social media is ideal for small and medium sized businesses. It’s big companies that are finding it tricky.

Coca Cola recently published some research they had conducted into their own use of social media, which shows that despite an enormous amount of activity across their brand, they couldn’t point to any significant increase in sales as a result.

This is the brand with the largest following on Facebook, 62m Likes, and yet no discernible effect on sales?

Similarly, Unilever just announced that they will be curbing their social media spend – at least for some brands – as it doesn’t deliver enough return on investment.

Many people have rushed to say that this comes down, in part, to difficulties in using standard ROI measures to evaluate social media; or that for some brands, Unilever wasn’t using social media well. And as a brand professional, I would be the first to agree that keeping your brand present in people’s minds, growing and developing your brand, is vital. Coca Cola don’t get to keep their crown as one of the world’s biggest brands through distribution and taste alone. Social media definitely has a part to play in brand building, although it needs to occupy a proportionate place in the marketing mix.

But what Coca Cola and Unilever have in common is that they’re dealing in the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) market. They sell billions upon billions of products over the whole world – you pick them off the shelf, you buy them, you use them, and when they’re gone you buy another one. Or not. That buying decision is the crucial element of our relationship with those companies.

On the whole, we are a risk averse species: when we make a decision, such as buying a product, we like to feel secure that we’re not making a mistake. There are two key ways in which we achieve that sense of security – we buy a brand we trust, or we buy from a person we trust.

We know that when we buy a can of Coca-Cola, it is guaranteed to taste like all the other cans of Coca-Cola we have ever tasted. And because Coca-Cola spends a lot of money on advertising and brand building to tell us this, we also know how we think this can of Coca-Cola will make us feel. We think that this is the best cola we could buy, because we have had the message hammered home that ‘Coke is it’. We know nothing about the people who produce the drink we are consuming – our relationship is solely with the brand itself. There’s nothing social about that relationship, and so for me, there is an inherent difficulty in engaging with a big brand via a social platform. Do I want to be Colgate’s friend? Does our relationship go beyond that straightforward business transaction of me choosing and buying their toothpaste? Am I interested in anything about Coke beyond whether I want one, and how much it costs? Even with brands that are marketing a lifestyle, such as perfume, social media is a tricky engagement to get right. Just look at Condescending Corporate Brand’s Facebook page to see how badly it can all go wrong. (“We’re a big Corporate Brand® using Facebook. So look out for us asking you to like and share our stuff in a faintly embarrassing and awkward way.”)

But what about for the small or medium sized business, which does not have the luxury of the big brand and its budget – how does a small business make its customers feel secure about buying from them? We trust a small business if we feel some sort of connection with it. This connection might be that the business is part of our community (your local farm shop, for example), or that we know the person who runs it, or someone who works there. It might be that someone we trust has recommended it to us. All of these things give us a direct, personal and social relationship with the business, and more importantly, the people in it. How many times do friends and colleagues say ‘Can you recommend a good plumber/IT consultant/HR person’? They could just use the Yellow Pages, but they want the security of a person they trust telling them who is worth using.

None of this is new. The old adage that people buy from people holds true even in the days of global business and online transactions. And at the SME level, much of the handwringing over social media and brands in the industry press is startlingly irrelevant. Talk to any owner of a small business, and they will tell you that the way they get their customers is through connections. Networking, referrals, joining business organisations and associations. Having a shop front on the high street to make a connection with each and every person who walks by. Putting a sign up for everyone to read.

Social media is just a tool to help make those connections more effectively. We mourn the loss of neighbourhoods where everyone talked to each other – well now, they’re talking on Twitter and Facebook instead, and recommending and referring services and suppliers to each other. B&Q has even created a dedicated social platform for neighbourhoods called StreetClub, tapping into the unique relationship we have with our neighbours (not always close friends, but connected by our location.)

We wonder how to attract customers to our local business –  a fishmonger in Bristol tweets what fresh fish he has in every morning to his following of local customers. LinkedIn groups provide instant business networking without ever leaving your chair, for almost every industry you can imagine, and targeted to geographical locations. If you’re a specialist in a particular field, where else can you get daily access to a community of people all interested in that field, except on social media?  On Pinterest you can find people who are interested in the hobby or activity for which you sell the materials, and see trends in interests happening in real time.

Many of these interactions are backed up by real-world interactions – meetings, gatherings etc – but are strengthened and often initiated by the virtual element. Social media can be a powerful catalyst for human relationships to form. And from those relationships come trusted connections and networks.

Paul Adams’ book ‘Grouped’ talks about a shift from an internet of information towards a structure built around people and their interactions, and urges all businesses to structure themselves around social behaviour. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but one thing is certainly true, to my mind: in a world of 7 billion people, tools which allow us to build connections with the ones that matter to us – whether they’re neighbours, potential customers, business associates, friends or family – have the power to change the world for SMEs completely.


Came across this interesting post on the Coca Cola website by Wendy Clark, their SVP for Integrated Marketing. She’s absolutely right of course that social media, at global brand level, has to be considered as part of an integrated marketing mix rather than in isolation. But for small businesses, social media can be effective at supporting the business relationships we build every day, without the need for any other marketing channels.