How small business can best leverage social media

I’m so often asked “what’s the best way for a small business to get ROI from social media?” with its related caveat, “for no money,”  that I have been forced to think about this in earnest. I never have the simple answer everyone appears to be looking for.

And that’s because there is no single most effective way for a small business to use social media, because there is no such thing as a typical small business.  As someone who trains and mentors both entrepreneurs and small businesses on a daily basis (and by the way, you economic development people, those terms are not synonymous), I can tell you that even categorizing small business is not simple.

 If you look at the way the category “small business” is routinely sliced and diced, it’s usually by SIC or NIC codes or by number of employees. And it’s contrasted with “the enterprise.” 

But if you talk to small businesses about who they are, they categorize themselves by what they do: I am a doctor, I am a pool cleaner, I am a welder, I am a web developer. Many small businesses are fiercely local. The same is not true of enterprises. Enterprises have more in common with each other than with small businesses because they all are made up of some similar functions in addition to their product offerings: HR departments, legal departments, purchasing departments, marketing departments.

Not true of small businesses. A doctor’s office with fifty employees runs completely differently from a tech company with fifty employees or a retail store with fifty employees. They may have few common functions.

And an entrepreneurial startup with 50 employees is completely different from any of the others. Entrepreneurship is about big vision, changing the world, and scale. Small business is about. well, small.

But there is one thing I feel comfortable saying: the best ROI from social media often comes from just monitoring it. 

Here’s my advice on how a small business can best deploy limited funds and time on social media and still get ROI. Don’t spend too much time monitoring for mentions of your brand, which is probably unknown, but look for generic things people are talking about in your industry segment or niche: lousy landscapers who leave the gate open and let the dog out, people who want fences that don’t block their views.  Dry cleaning that isn’t poisonous. Web sites that have e-commerce carts. Customers at coffee shops in the afternoons. Facebook pages that have hundreds or thousands of fans and likes.

Try to learn from those other businesses. The best use of social media isn’t really marketing, it’s learning. Social media allows you access to competitors, customers, and best practices. That’s never been possible before.

After you have gotten comfortable learning from what other people and businesses do and say in social media, see if it works in your business for customer service. After all, in your monitoring, if you come across a dissatisfied customer of yours, you can help her because you are already “out there” listening and you hear the complaint.

And if you encounter the dissatisfied customer of one of your competitors, then you can begin marketing. “If your dog wasn’t happy at Fluffy Groomers, we’re in your neighborhood and we’re Superior Groomers. Come on in and we’ll give you 15% off on your first visit.”

Don’t expect miracles. Social media may only bring you one new customer at a time. And social media is not free: it’s a time suck. Typically, it doesn’t make sales. It does build brand. But that takes personal participation over years.

And it does give you access to opportunistic marketing. It’s the best kind. But it takes a long time to master.