In addition to branding and publicity services, small businesses and non-profits periodically seek out my advice on social media strategy. While every case is unique, there are (in my opinion) some common—and avoidable—mistakes that many small businesses make. In this series, I will discuss five of these mistakes, in order of significance:
and offer some potential solutions you can implement on your own, or with the help of a consultant.
But enough about me; let's talk about you. What do you like about me?
Sound familiar? It conjures images of the arrogant, egotistical playboy who can't pass a mirror without admiring his own hair and teeth, or the self-annointed princess who expects every man in the room to fall at her feet. It's the type of conversation that would have you checking your watch while mentally mapping every exit in the room in the hopes of making your escape.
These are charicatures, of course. And my opening line is a rather worn cliché. But it is indicative of the way the majority of small brands behave on social media. Simply put, small businesses spend far too much of their time tooting their own horns and advertising, rather than engaging in discussion and turning followers into brand advocates. It's a phenomenon I refer to as, It's All About ME! And it is, in my opinion, the # 1 Small Business Social Media Mistake. Here's why...
The media bombards consumers with advertising day in and day out, in print, on radio & television, and over the internet. We've come to expect it, and, to a degree, we've learned to tune it out. After all, it's the price we pay for "free" entertainment. And with most traditional forms of media, consumers are largely passive spectators, quietly consuming whatever content is served to them. The doors of social networks have been open to brands for years now, and some businesses—small businesses in particular—still treat social networks like any other advertising platform.
But social media is different. Social media is an equalizer. On social media, the consumer is more than a spectator; the consumer is an active participant with a platform, and the power to talk back. Perhaps more importantly, though, social media is where consumers go to interact with friends and family, to discuss their own interests, and to nurture their personal relationships. It's no surprise then that advertising is viewed as even more of an intrusion on social media than anywhere else. The solution is simple: advertise less.
What? Does this mean you shouldn't tout your brand on social media? Of course not. After all, your channels are your channels, and your followers are—presumably—following you because they have a genuine interest in your business. But once again, the devil is in the details. What you say isn't always as important as how you say it. Rather than talking about about your brand, the way to win on social media is to talk through your brand, and shift the focus of attention to the user. When you do this, you are no longer advertising; you are engaging in discussion, you are advocating. And if you do it right, you will encourage others to advocate on your behalf.
Let's look at our hypothetical small brands, one last time...
Acme Paving, Inc.
is a commercial paving & road repair contractor that relies on municipal contracts for 70% of its annual revenue.
is a suburban coffee shop, offering baked goods, free wi-fi, and a reading area with a small libary of books & magazines.
And let's explore some examples of Social Media Mistake #1, along with some practical solutions, beginning with Acme Paving...
Acme Paving is using business-to-consumer networks like Facebook and Twitter as public relations tools to bolster voter support for state and local spending on infrastructure projects. Most of their business-to-business social networking and promotional activity is taking place on LinkedIn and Google+. In my previous article, Acme was courting a large developer for a chance to bid on a lucrative mall parking lot project, and the business development manager wanted a case study from a similar earlier project to gain visibility on social media.
The BDM posts a link to the case study to every relevant LinkedIn discussion group every morning, with an accompanying description that reads something like this:
Acme Paving has the engineering expertise to tackle challenging projects like the proposed [County] Mall. We've done it before. See how we rose to the occasion.
He also directs his social media team to generate daily status updates to the company's LinkedIn page, directly lauding the company's accomplishments, and including a link to the case study.
Generally, this kind of content is fine, in moderation. However, when it becomes the norm, people begin tuning it out as white noise. First of all, if you post the same content over and over again (however relevant it may be) with the same supporting narrative, it begins to look a lot like spam. Secondly, the overwhelming majority of social media users (even on B2B networks) are there to engage in discussion and enhance their own personal and professional lives. Even if what you have to say is of value to the user, if you consistently present it in a self-aggrandizing manner, your message may go ignored. Finally, if every mundane piece of information you share is accompanied by such fanfare, how then do you put emphasis on an announcement that is genuinely newsworthy? For instance, after all this self-promotion, if Acme Paving were to win this new mall project, how would its BDM draw attention to this achievement without it looking like just another pat on the back?
So let's apply a solution that puts the case study in plain view on social media, and keeps the focus on the user...
Over the course of a business week, on its page and in various LinkedIn discussion groups related to retail development and engineering, Acme Paving provides a link to the case study, but with a different accompanying status update each day...
With a little help, [Developer/Client] overcame some unique challenges while building retail property in [County]. The county government maintains high standards for pedestrian safety, groundwater quality, and noise pollution.
[Link to case study]
When [County] residents expressed concerns about the environmental impact of new retail parking facilities, civil engineer [name of Acme employee] was ready with solutions.
[Photo of employee, Link to case study]
How does the geography/topography of the area surrounding a retail development affect pedestrian safety and visibility? A look inside the process of surveying, excavating, and surfacing a modern parking facility.
[Link to case study]
And so on...
In the above solutions, the linked content (case study) is the same, but the focus of the narrative is not on Acme and how great a company it is. The Monday posting puts the focus on the client, who has become a valuable reference for Acme. In the Tuesday posting, the BDM has chosen to shine the spotlight on the engineer who headed up the project, and the community where the parking lot was built. On Wednesday, the study is presented in the context of a neutral discussion on surveying and excavation. In each example, the supporting narrative is relevant to topics of discussion on LinkedIn, and Acme never invokes its own name. Now, when Acme bids on and wins the new mall project, the BDM can issue a press release and shout the good news from on high without sounding like a broken record.
Now, let's examine how the principle might apply to Cathy's Café...
Cathy features live music on Friday nights in her newly expanded reading room. The entertainment is an up-and-coming singer/songwriter. Her featured menu item this week is a berry tart made with locally grown organic berries from a family owned farm just outside of town. Cathy has an ample supply of the perishable berries arriving on Thursday, and she wants to draw a big crowd Friday so they don't go to waste.
Cathy makes up a digital flyer that reads as follows:
Cathy's Café Presents
Live Music Friday, 7-9 PM
Featured Menu Item:
Sinfully Delicious Organic Berry Tart
She posts the flyer to her Facebook page twice a day with this supporting text:
Spend Friday Night at Cathy's. Live music starts at 7PM.
Not a bad little piece of advertising, but it's still just advertising. And if she posts it twice daily for seven days, she risks drowning out her usual content (photos, videos, fair trade advocacy), which is far more interesting to her customers than an event flyer. Cathy needs to get the word out about Friday night without inflicting advertising fatigue on her followers. And she can do this; in fact, she can work in several mentions of her event if she changes the context and shifts the focus of her message to her customers, her vendors, and her employees.
Let's look at a solution that promotes Cathy's event from multiple angles...
Cathy creates a Facebook Event page for her Live Music Friday. The flyer serves as the event photo. Over the course of the week, she posts new photos to the Event page—and to her Instagram account—highlighting the many different facets of her business, and linking them to the event.
Cathy adds a special to her Foursquare page, offering 10% off on Friday night from 7-9PM with a check-in. She tips off customers on her Facebook & Twitter accounts early on:
Share a treat with a friend. Check in during Live Music Friday and earn 10% off any bakery item.
[Link to Foursquare listing]
Cathy shares a photo of the local farmer who supplies the berries for her tart. Caption reads:
Choosing local, organic produce is good for the environment and the economy. [Farmer] and his family have supplied us with summer berries for five seasons. His berries are back on the menu this Friday.
[Link to Event page]
With permission, Cathy shares a video clip of the singer/songwriter who will be playing on Friday, with a clever caption:
Nothing gets our juices flowing on a Monday morning quite like @[Singer/Songwriter]. We can't wait to have him LIVE in the reading room this Friday!
[Link to Event page]
Cathy posts a photo of her top barista preparing his signature latté, with this caption:
To [Barista], a latté is more than a drink; it's a work of art. He'll be working his magic this Friday during our live music event with @[Singer/Songwriter] in the reading room.
[Link to Event page]
Cathy posts the flyer, but with a more thoughtful caption:
Local music. Local ingredients. Local flavors. Everything we love about [Community], every Friday evening.
[Link to Event page]
Cathy posts a photo of her baker with a basket of fresh berries. Caption reads: Look what just arrived from down the road! [Baker] has his hands full, and he couldn't be happier. Getting ready for tomorrow night.
[Link to Event page]
Every one of the above social media updates includes a mention of Cathy's live music event. But the focus of the content varies from post to post. On Saturday, she provides a clear call to action, but she frames it in the context of doing something nice for a friend. On Sunday, she features her longtime produce supplier. On Monday morning, she helps her followers kick off their work week with a preview of Friday night's talent. On Tuesday, she shows her appreciation for her most valued employee. On Wednesday, she shares her flyer and appeals to her followers' support for their community and its family owned businesses. On Thursday, she features another valued employee and builds anticipation by celebrating the arrival of her colorful, delicious featured ingredient. In every update, Cathy advocates for a greater cause than simply lining her own pockets. This content appeals to followers who hold these causes in high regard, and it encourages them to become advocates for Cathy's brand.
In summary, social media is a powerful communications platform, one that may be better suited for consumer advocacy than for traditional advertising. The more you think like an advocate, the more success you will have. Build a brand that stands for something—anything—and give social media users a real incentive to engage with and share your content. Remember, your business may be all about you, but social media is all about the user.
TJ Barranger is a branding and publicity consultant in the Baltimore, Maryland area with a background in business communications and online content management. He specializes in assisting small business and non-profit clients. Agree/disagree with this article? Share your comments via e-mail: TJ@TJBCreative.com.