The role of social media for small businesses

It has given the man on the street a voice, helping to bring down governments (as shown by the Arab Spring), change or delay legislation, and force apologies from errant celebrities (like Ryan Giggs) and politicians.

In the same way, it has empowered small businesses, and given them much greater controlover their marketing budgets and activities.

No longer do they have to rely on advertising in their local newspaper or phone book, orprint thousands of leaflets which are rendered useless within seconds of hitting the doormat.

Sites like Facebook and Twitter give them the opportunity to reach millions, if not billions, of potential customers around the world in an instant, without spending any money at all.

The onlyinvestment required is time, and for a small business which already has a limited marketing budget to hear that in difficult economic times is manna from heaven.

It makesraising awareness of a company much easier. Previously, small businesses would have to invest heavily in marketing, particularly through their local media, to make people aware of their product or service.

Alongside that they would need to knock on countless doors and attend numerous networking events to spread the word.

Thanks to social media, they can set up a profile for their company within minutes, and start connecting with people straight away.

From there, they can tap into huge networks of contacts – friends of friends, and friends of their friends.

And since the majority of people they ‘follow’ will return the favour, a small business can have a network of thousands within a few days.

The key aspect is to keep profiles updated regularly, and post engaging, interesting content which your followers will want to hear about.

Small businesses can market themselves in a much more targeted way than before.

Social networking sites enable a business to gain very specific information, from where they live, to where they shop, to what they enjoy doing in their spare time.

This knowledge is extremely powerful, particularly for niche businesses.

For example, if a company offers bespoke luggage sets for sports cars, they can target owners of sports cars.

If they sell pharmaceutical products for horses, they can easily and quickly find horse enthusiasts, vets, and owners of stables.

They canthen be sure they are marketing their products to the right audiences.

Previously, the only real option was using a trade magazine for promotion, which would be fine but doesn’t offer the same immediacy or engagement.

Another role social media can perform is boosting traffic to a company’s website, at a fraction of the cost of a pay-per-click or SEO campaign.

Google is increasingly looking at a company’s social media presence when deciding how their website should be ranked.

It’s not just about the number of visits, links or keywords anymore – although those elements of a website are still important.

They increasingly want to reward those companies with a good reputation, who have a large following, and are recommended to others by their customers.

As a result, over the next few months, you will see more references to profiles on social networks – for example YouTube videos – in your search engine results.

So, if you handle your social media activity properly, your site will rank higher and therefore more likely to be clicked on than those further down the rankings.

In turn,that could play a very big role in increasing your sales.

Due to the increased visibility of your profiles, customer service has become even more important.

Angry customers talk more than happy ones. That has always been the case.

The White House Office of Consumer Affairs says a dissatisfied customer will tell between nine and 15 people about their experience.

Maybe businesses could get away with that before social media, but not any more. Imagine how many people could read that one complaint if it was on Facebook!

It’s vital to monitor the conversation about your business on sites like these.

Hopefully you won’t have to deal with complaints, but sometimes things do go wrong, and if it does, it’s important to handle the problem in the right way on social networking sites.

Remember – other people are watching how you respond to customer service issues! It could determine whether they use you in the future or not.

And, if that were not enough, there is even more reason to have high standards of customer service.

A recommendation from a customer carries so much more weight now that we should all strive to get as many testimonials from our followers as we can.

Not onlywill it have an impact on your search engine rankings, but those other followers who haven’t purchased from you yet are far more likely to do so in future.

Social media is a very cost-effective and simple way of marketing a small business.

It performs various roles – it can help a business spend their marketing budget more efficiently; promote their products and services to a larger, global market, and to the right market.

It can attract more people to your website, and show your potential customers how you will treat them when they buy from you.

Yes, it has to be managed properly, and there are many pitfalls to avoid, but it represents a huge opportunity for small businesses to reach audiences they could neverhave imagined pre-social media.

And its importance will continue to grow, as social networking sites have yet to reach their full potential as marketing tools.

This article was written by John Borthwick of online marketing agency Fifteen Digital. He can be contacted on 01325 350857 or