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Social Media Marketing – the Search for Meaning

Some people now consider social media marketing for business to be in a tricky “Teenage” stage; experiencing growing pains and doubts about its efficiency, but on the verge of something really extraordinary.  And the truth is, many businesses have tried and failed to engage prospects or generate leads – even though they are well placed to take advantage of the new medium.  But equally, many others are now well positioned to graduate – and go on to clean up in their sector.  The problem is that some business owners have been encouraged to dabble, “just a little”,  but at the same time, set very high expectations for social media marketing.  Often, external consultants and digital marketing companies, that should know better, have encouraged the hype.  The outcome is that we all now expect social media marketing to be both cheaper and more effective than traditional marketing, as well as deliver efficiencies in research, product design and customer service.  But…Can social media live up to the hype?  The future is in your hands…

A couple of years back, a few enlightened small businesses took the plunge and set up a Facebook account and started to post on Twitter and Linked In.  Some had great success as they were fishing in an untapped pond – and the pond itself was growing into a very big lake!  (It still is growing by the way).  Of course, this success led more businesses to jump in and soon it seems that there were as many businesses clamouring for attention as there were potential prospects.  You only have to search Twitter for your key words to see an enormous stream of real-time consciousness pass through your browser to see what I mean.  Meanwhile, the consumers and prospects themselves started to get fed up or bored of the constant interruption in their social media activity.  Indeed, some commentators claim to have spotted a “social media backlash” whereby businesses and consumers have altogether abandoned attempts to interact using social media tools like Facebook and Twitter.

There are two issues for small businesses using social media:

  1. The overwhelming presence of the large brands in an otherwise usefully intimate social media setting
  2. The presence of a millions of other small brands all looking for similar attention

In most paid media, you would not see this mixing of large brands and small business in the same space and with so little differentiation. In theory, this means that small business can compete with large business in the same channel, but actually it does not really work for either. Both are crowded out.  On top of which, all of these companies, large and small, are using perhaps just 140 characters or less to create attention. Together this generates a soup of interference in your attempts to establish a one-to-one relationship with your potential customers.

Almost with out exception, large consumer brands like Coca-Cola, with 36 Million Facebook Fans, end up using Facebook as a one way communication tool. They are trying to use Facebook as though is a TV Channel in the 1950s and broadcast brand messages. True, Coca-Cola will make some posts in a pretence of a two-way interaction, but they cannot possibly engage on an intimate basis with 36m Fans.   It is not all Coca-Cola’s fault.  Clearly the 36m Fans feel they need (or more accurately will get) something from the brand – otherwise why would 36m Fans join?  But, let’s be clear, this is NOT social media marketing. This is using social media tools to do traditional one way marketing. I call this “social media broadcasting”.

Small and niche businesses often try to emulate the large brands by frantically trying to gather as many Fans and Followers as possible. While there is something for the small business in the power of random connections achieved through sheer size, especially if those businesses have national or better international reach – this is not social media marketing either. This is using social media tools to create more efficient one-on-one networking- and is really “social media business networking”.

Most small and medium businesses are defined by their market coverage and /or their geographic reach.  For many, a potential prospect base, at any given time, is measured in the thousands and for some niche business, perhaps much less than one thousand. Before social media, it would have been very difficult to maintain a one-to-one relationship with even these few. But now, this is the sort of number across which you can expect to maintain a fair degree of responsiveness and interaction.  And dare I say it, even “intimate engagement” using currently available social media tools.  Intimate Engagement IS the definition of social media marketing.  The fact is, social media marketing, using tools like Linked In and Facebook may have been tailored made for the marketing requirements of most small businesses.  That is, providing they set realistic expectations and do bother to actually engage.

Even so, winning or engaging customers on a one-by-one basis is not viable either, so it is important that the tools are used with care to spot when one-to-one intervention is necessary. Either because it might eventually lead to a more solid relationship or indeed new business, or when, if ignored would damage your brand.  And alternatively, when it is possible to do a Coca-Cola and simply broadcast useful but none directed information. Sometimes, it is best just to stand back and let your Fans and Followers interact and answer their own questions and deal with their own issues. Make no mistake, all this takes time and is a skill that small business owners either have to learn or should buy in. Taking this argument a little further, it means that there is a limit to the number of Fans or Followers you should collect per administrator.  Of course, if social media marketing is working for you, then you could always deploy more staff to handle the required interaction – and sophisticated social media marketing companies will arrange to have all staff trained and able to help with the task.

If you think about it, this is just like a parent handling teenage growing pains. The small and medium business owners that get the balance right between using one-to -one intervention, broadcast methods and just keeping out of the way, will ultimately be successful and see a good return for their time and effort.  For these business owners, social media will exceed the hype and graduate into a solid and reliable way of marketing a business.  Both now – and in the future.