Small businesses make big progress with social media

Mega brands such as Pepsi and Starbucks have a major presence on social media platforms, engaging consumers and building buzz

Mega brands such as Pepsi and Starbucks have a major presence on social media platforms, engaging consumers and building buzz. Yet small businesses, with less funding and fewer resources, are having a harder time embracing the trend.

A recent Citibank survey of small business executives found 81% weren't using social media to expand their businesses, even though 63% said word of mouth is the most effective way to market their business.

However, Kimberly Eberl, president of Motion PR in Chicago, believes they are missing out and "absolutely" thinks small businesses should embrace social media.

"With limited financial re-sources, many small business owners are leaning towards social media as a way to increase traffic without spending ad or PR dollars," she says.

One of her clients, a children's DVD series called It's Hip Hop, Baby!, used Twitter and Facebook to connect with mommy bloggers online. "It has been a very efficient way for them to reach a lot of media," notes Eberl. "It definitely takes time, but it's not as time-consuming as it could be."

In the Citibank survey, 63% of small business executives report using a website for marketing or expanding business, with 74% of those saying their site has helped generate more business.

Saved by social media
Tampa, FL-based tortilla company La Bonita Ole is one small business that has achieved significant results from a social media presence. In June 2009, a year after filing for bankruptcy, the company used social media to spread its story, encourage consumers to buy its products, and reestab-lish the company's viability.

President and CEO Tammy Young launched a specific website, which was taken down after the company emerged from bankruptcy, and used Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to engage current and potential customers.

By April, La Bonita Ole had "returned to profitability," Young notes. The company plans to make additional hires and expand its distribution. Young credits social media as being the major contributor to this success.

"I have never seen, in my entire career, any type of forum or promotional vehicle that can reach so many people at so small a cost," she says. "In our case, social media was really responsible for saving a company."

Matt Vaughan, social media strategist at Holly Springs, NC- based 919 Marketing, says small businesses can maximize their presence online by providing compelling content.

"Content is the number-one thing you need to have a successful social media campaign," he adds. He encourages small business owners and managers to take several hours a week to plan and create content online, and then spend smaller increments of time posting the content daily, responding to customers, and listening.

Denver's Tattered Cover bookstore uses its social media presence - a blog, Facebook page, and Twitter account - to build relationships with customers and drive attendance at its author events.

"It is [worth the time] to establish relationships with your customers, readers, publishers, and editors," explains Patty Miller, the bookstore's digital media coordinator. "We mainly want our customers to feel they're getting to know a lot of what we know. Book lovers are wonderful that way; they want to hear everything that is going on, they want to hear about new books and author gossip."

Ultimately, small businesses must be strategic with their social media plans and maximize their time online. Priya Ramesh, director of social media strategies at CRT/tanaka, notes ROI is even more important to small business owners engaged in the space.

"Traditional start-up companies seek venture capital funding or take out a loan," she explains, "so every nickel and dime has to be justified for them."

Social Media Tips for Small Business:

Research what consumers are saying about you and competitors online, then decide which social networks are most beneficial

Study other companies' social media plans and use case studies for inspiration

Lean on younger staffers who use social media most

Engage other entities in your industry. Be an online resource for those interested in your company

Figure out how much time you can afford to spend on social media - and stick to it

Do other PR and ads. Social media works best as part of an overall marketing plan

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