Creating opportunity
Social media mavens share their top tips for small businesses
Free Enterprise Staff | June 22, 2016

For some small business owners, keeping up with social media can seem like a daunting task. Creating compelling stories on Snapchat, churning out clever tweets, and keeping the Facebook feed fresh—on top of everything else entrepreneurs have to handle on a daily basis—is enough to send anyone into a tizzy.

Even so, creating a strong digital presence has become less an option and more a necessity for small businesses that want to stand out from the competition and continue to grow, according to experts who spoke at last week’s America’s Small Business Summit in Washington.

In fact, nearly two-thirds of all Americans now use social media networks, up almost tenfold from 2005, according to a 2015 report from the Pew Research Center. How does that translate into a business imperative? Well, a 2015 Deloitte study found that almost half of millennials (47 percent) used social media at some point in the process of purchasing an item, and one in five non-millennials did the same.

Not only can reaching out to consumers on social media generate more brand recognition and sales opportunities, it’s also a mechanism to help small firms compete with larger brands, David Brown, chairman, chief executive officer and president at Web.com, said at the summit.

“Consumers have access to more information than ever—they can literally price-shop any product, and that hurts small businesses,” he said. “But small businesses can leverage their real strengths to win—their ability to connect with customers.”

In the future, social media is likely to play an increasingly direct role in revenue generation as the industry looks to incorporate buy buttons that allow consumers to shop directly from a social platform.

So how do entrepreneurs stand out on social?

The first step is mercifully easy: simply watch what other companies share to understand what works and—more importantly—what doesn’t, said Shawn Brain, director of strategy and account management at Marriott International.

“For people who are afraid to dive into the space, monitoring and listening is half the battle,” she said. “Try to adapt what you learn to your business.”

Doug Rashid, a digital strategist and public relations expert at drPR, a consulting company based in Washington, also suggested that entrepreneurs should view social media as an essential part of their growth strategy, rather than a chore to add to their already-full plates.

“When people tell me that they’re afraid of social, I always turn around and say ‘Are you afraid of opportunity?’” he said at the event. “You have to figure out what your target is and then go for the [relevant] platform to stay in business.”

For example, small businesses that create products aimed at consumers between the ages of 8 and 16 should consider being active on platforms like Snapchat, he said, whereas businesses that publish content directed at slightly older audiences should probably stay engaged on Twitter.

Once small businesses find a platform (or platforms) that works for them and their products, they should make sure their content attracts the right type of attention from consumers.

“For you to break through in your newsfeed, you have to be more interesting than your friends,” Brain said. Partnering with established social media influencers is one way to do that, she added, and seeking out or creating highly shareable standalone media is another.

One way businesses can increase their chances of being noticed is by integrating video—whether it’s professionally crafted or smartphone produced—into their social platforms and websites. Videos have been shown to attract better overall engagement than regular posts, said Brain, who also helps develop videos for the Marriott chain. She added: “The top 5 percent of online videos can deliver more Gross Rating Point [an industry tool that measures advertising impact] than primetime [television viewership] on a Thursday.”

When it comes down to it, developing a social media presence is a lot of hard work—but experts say it’s well worth the extra effort to do it right.

“There’s no easy answer,” Brain said. “You have to get in the game.”