Making social media work for SMEs

Inxtoday’s super-connected, always-switched-on world, businesses of almost any size can reach markets and customers beyond their borders with unprecedented ease. Technology has acted as the great leveller in this area, opening up global trade that was once the exclusive preserve of large multi-nationals. In the UK alone e-commerce sales have grown rapidly, and were worth almost £500billion in 2012(1) while a third of small businesses are selling goods and services over the internet(2).

However for smaller businesses, servicing a global customer base means overcoming challenges such as different time zones, as well as language barriers and cultural nuances. Small businesses rarely have the time or resources to invest in outsourced customer service support, and many are finding that social media is an effective alternative, not only to traditional modes of customer service, but also to building an international audience.

A few simple tips can work wonders for SMEs that invest the necessary time and effort.

Establish goals. Before your business launches into social media, ask yourself why you need it and how it will help you to meet your objectives. Will you use it for customer service, to build brand awareness, to drive sales, or all of the above? Whatever your objective, you need to choose the right platform. If you are working with consumers, Facebook might be more appropriate, whereas B2B companies may want to look at LinkedIn.

Build a following. The most finely-honed messages and beautiful content won’t have much impact if only two dozen social media “followers” ever get to see it. That said, you should also be cautious of overly promoting products and coming across as too corporate. Instead, think creatively to make potential customers pay attention. A good rule of thumb for this is the 80/20 rule: 80% of posts that engage and inform followers, and 20% that carry more direct sales messaging.

Join the conversation. If you open a shop on the high street, you probably wouldn’t stop people in the street and immediately start talking about your new business. The same is true of social media where you need to find the right conversations, and engage genuinely and openly. This way you can spread the word about your offering, as well as show that you understand the likes and dislikes of your target audience – in effect showing off your business’ personality. The main social media sites all now use hashtags and groups enabling you to find people who are interested in what you have to say. Remember it’s a two-way street, so it’s important to engage with your audience by sharing high quality content that will interest them.

Quality, not quantity. A few thousand followers who are genuinely won over by your offering are far more valuable than hundreds of thousands who retweeted a Twitter post simply to take part in a promotion. Build a reputation for real expertise by researching the people and issues that have the biggest influence in the markets your company is targeting. Use the tone and manner of your status updates to position your company as being human – think friendliness, approachability or a sense of humour. These steps will help your company to develop a distinctive social media voice and stand out from the crowd(3).

Find out what works through constant monitoring. There’s no substitute for experience, so you need to ensure you’re monitoring the results of your engagements with social media followers(4). For example, Facebook provides analytics into how a business is performing by tracking likes and customer engagement, adding an extra layer of insight into what works and what doesn’t.

Ultimately, social media is not an end in itself – the real yardstick of success is how much business is coming in. But by learning from the experts, making a conscious commitment to social media as a sales or customer service channel and leveraging their inherent flexibility and adaptability as small organisations, SMEs can get it right and reap the benefits.

ONS Research, 7 August 2014

2 ONS Research, 7 August 2014

3 The Guardian, How SMEs can make the best use of social media, 13 December 2013

4 The Guardian, How SMEs can make the best use of social media, 13 December 2013