While they use social media personally and believe it affects their businesses, the majority of small-business owners don't know how to use the new networks to build their companies, according to a social media study of small businesses released by Social Strategy1, which mines social media for business intelligence, and OfficeArrow, an online information network of 350,000 small and midsize businesses. What's more, most don't plan on investing online until they understand the practices and payoffs.
Nearly three quarters (73 percent) of small-business owners said they access social networks on smartphones or other mobile devices, yet 67 percent are holding back investing in social media because they don't know where to begin. What's holding them back is a sense of overload, in particular, fear of the resources required to meet the expectations of social media users.
Specifically, 51 percent said they fear sharing sensitive information, 50 percent said there's too much social media to manage and 44 percent said they fear "information overload." The study engaged 343 small-business executives, predominantly from companies with fewer than 10 employees, via email and Website surveys. All are members of the OfficeArrow network.
"Small businesses need a playbook to proceed in social media," said Steve Ennen, president and chief intelligence officer for Social Strategy1. "Entrepreneurs are the heart and soul of the American economy. Preparing them to capitalize on the business opportunities social media can create should be a top priority."
The solution, says Ennen, is to treat social media as a platform for listening, not talking. Among the 41 percent of small businesses taking any social media action, the focus is solidly on promoting to increase brand awareness. However, 60 percent say they do want to use social media as an information source; they just don't know how.
Ennen said there are three basic steps small businesses should take when delving into the world of social media, starting with finding the businesses customers online. "There's a world beyond Facebook and Twitter online, where people bare their feelings instantaneously," he explained. "Identify the places where customers are commenting, linking and sharing content."
Businesses should also establish feeds to extract relevant insights continually and emphasize customer service. It's possible do more for less through online customer service, Ennen said, such as cataloging what people like, trust, dislike and distrust, about the company, competitors and category. He recommends pinpointing the key dissatisfactions and considering ways to automate tasks for customers. Then, using that data, communicate with them in meaningful ways.
"The most important resource is a specialist in monitoring social media," said Ennen. "Small businesses need to focus resources on customer action, and monitoring professionals combine the technology and analysis to show what actions are profitable."