My October Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly column focuses on Facebook–specifically, what social media tools to consider if Facebook’s not right for you. What other sites, tools, strategies, and tactics do you recommend for businesses that might have limited opportunities on Facebook?
Last month, my column focused on some of the challenges businesses face after starting a Facebook page. In short, I said that even though Facebook is the undisputed social media king, it isn’t right for every business.
So what do you do if Facebook isn’t right for you? Does that mean you should avoid social media altogether? My answer is an emphatic no. There are other social media tools and strategies that can be very effective, depending on your goals, resources and audience. The key is understanding what’s available and what’s most likely to position you for success.
There are a few types of businesses that are more likely to struggle in building an audience on Facebook. What follows is a discussion of some of the social media strategies and tools that have the greatest potential for these businesses, whether they’re just getting started with social media or looking for alternatives to Facebook.
Business-to-business (B2B) companies: Social media can be just as effective for B2B companies as is for business-to-consumer (B2C) companies. After all, B2B is still person to person, and social networks are one of the best tools we have for connecting people.
This does not mean, however, that Facebook is always an effective B2B tool. According to a recent ExactTarget Inc. study, 59 percent of Facebook members say they’re there primarily to maintain personal relationships, compared to only 15 percent who use it for professional contacts. The bottom line is, when your business contacts are on Facebook, most are thinking about play, not work.
So where do people go where they do want to talk business? Professional networking sites like LinkedIn and Plaxo offer some of the same functionality as Facebook, but their members are intently focused on business. As LinkedIn’s Deep Nishar told Fortune magazine in March: “People are in a different context and mindset when they’re in a profes sional network.” And that mindset means they’re open to conversations about business when they’re on LinkedIn. In fact, that’s precisely why professional networking sites exist.
For those who want to invest even more time into a social media strategy, a blog is an excellent tool. You can create substantive content uniquely designed for your audience, and you can promote that content via LinkedIn to those already in your network. Creating a blog worth reading takes time, but if you do it well your existing contacts will share your content, which will allow you to reach an even larger audience.
And if you want to stay on top of industry trends, niche social media sites are a great tool. These sites tend to attract a small but focused following that has a deep interest in a specific topic. Joining a community designed for your industry — or even starting a new community if none currently exists — can be a great way to connect to knowledge and referral sources who might be hard to reach in the real world. Think of it as online professional development, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“Boring” business-to-consumer companies: There are some companies consumers genuinely want to be associated with. Not all B2C companies are this lucky, however. In the consumer’s eyes some are … well, a little boring. One example is utilities. Consumers value utilities as long as the lights, cable and water stay on, but beyond that, they don’t give them much thought. Getting their attention on Facebook, then, is probably unlikely at best. Given the importance of these services, however, consumers still want to connect with them — and as consumers spend more time on social media sites, it’s more likely they’ll want the option of using social media to do so. It’s important, however, to recognize whether your brand is “boring” and, if it is, understand how consumers want to interact with you. It’s probably not to build the relationship beyond their immediate needs.
That’s why Twitter can be such a great tool for these types of companies. Because tweets are great for information that has a limited shelf life, they can be an effective tool for fielding customers’ questions and ideas, as Comcast has done very effectively with its @ComcastCares handle on Twitter. Your customers’ comments won’t always be friendly, but over time you can improve customer satisfaction by providing another channel through which they can voice concerns.
Even if Twitter isn’t right for you, an old social media standby, the discussion board, might be an excellent choice. It’s another place where consumers can ask questions, and it can be hosted on your website, making it more accessible to non-Twitter users.
A discussion board may even create some efficiencies for you as consumers turn the board for answers, reducing the number of phone calls and e-mails sent to your business. Just make sure that your online and offline call centers work together to ensure that consumers questions are answered consistently, regardless of how they are submitted.
Small businesses that don’t have the resources to accommodate a labor-intensive social media commitment: One problem many companies run into when starting a Facebook page is that they grossly underestimate how much time it takes. Creating useful, engaging content and moderating and responding to community members’ posts requires a daily — sometimes hourly — commitment.
As a result, many lose momentum quickly and never recover. For companies like these, it may be worth looking into less labor-intensive tools that allow them to have a presence without having to expend resources that may be better spent elsewhere. A few examples include: • Photo-sharing sites: If you sell a tangible product, photo-sharing sites like Flickr can help you tell your story without having to constantly monitor discussions or post daily status updates.
• Video-sharing sites: Maybe the people best positioned to tell your story are your customers, staff or (especially relevant for nonprofits) volunteers. Turn the camera around and let them share what makes you unique. Then post these videos on a well-designed YouTube channel. You’ll need skill to create good content, but you won’t need to add new videos every day. A few each month is a good start.
• A niche site that lets your audience do the talking: Just like niche sites focus an audience on a specific industry, they can also focus your customers on your business, provided that you have an engaged, interested customer base (this is especially useful for businesses built around a hobby, like crafts or collectibles).
If so, create a space that lets them connect with each other, then step back and listen. You’ll still have to moderate the discussion, but you’ll spend your time learning from your customers instead of creating content in hopes of getting their attention.
Will these tactics deliver the same return as an integrated social media strategy that uses several tools and involves an ongoing, daily commitment? No, but something is certainly better than nothing, especially given the increasing amount of time your customers spend on social media sites.
These are just a few examples of how businesses can benefit from social media, even when Facebook isn’t right for them. The truth is, there are as many options as there are different types of companies. Your business is unique, and so are your customers. It should be no surprise then to learn that what works for others isn’t necessarily right for you.