Fear Drowning in Social Media? Start in Shallow End, Avoid ‘Expert’ Sharks

By Jason Menard

Small-business owners who may be interested in dipping a toe into the social media waters are, naturally, scared of drowning. And certain “experts” are no better than sharks who end up dragging people down with over-aggressive projects and plans.

Though it may not be as lucrative, any responsible social media consultant should encourage businesses to test out the shallow end of social networking — and not drown them in flash and hyperbole. Sadly, for a business that preaches honesty, there are more than a few shysters who don’t practice it.

A recent study showed 67 per cent of small business owners don’t plan on investing in social media in 2012, despite the fact that nine-tenths of them realize that social media impacts their business. The main reason? Small business owners feel overwhelmed. There are too many sites to deal with; a fear of sharing too much; and staffing issues.

Compounding the issue are these so-called experts who will try to sell you on an over-ambitious set of “solutions,” or whatever other biz-speak weasel phrase they’ve identified. They try to bamboozle the poor business owner (and it works on larger-scale industries as well, so don’t feel bad) with pseudo-expertise that merely preys on the business owner’s best intentions.

After all, most people are aware that social media can be good for one’s business. They think they should be doing something, but have no clue where to start. And that inertia can be paralyzing – instead of doing something, they’re so overwhelmed (or so deafened by the roar of the social media snake-oil salesman) that they just put it off.

I don’t consider myself an expert (in fact, I’ve yet to meet one, despite claims backed up by titles like ‘social media ninja’ or ‘Chief of Super-de-Duper Projects!’). I’m just a guy who has worked in both traditional media and business communications for the better part of two decades. I’m a guy who has spent a lot of time building up my company’s social networks (managing the Canadian versions exclusively), and I’ve had good response.

I know enough to know that there’s no magic formula. You can’t buy success, nor can you manufacturer it. Social media success is no different than any other business venture – if you have a good product, are willing to put in some effort, and you treat your clientele with respect, you’ll succeed.

So, here’s my advice to small business owners who are currently paralyzed/overwhelmed:

  • Focus your efforts: You can’t be everything to everyone. Start small, pick a couple of networks, and go for it! If you only have a few minutes each day here and there, it’s better to spend that updating one or two networks – and doing it well. Just because there are dozens of social networking sites, it doesn’t mean you have to use them all. Start with a post or two here and there, interact with those who follow and reply to you, and go from there!
  • Be where most of your customers are: While a small component of your customer base may use QR codes, checking into Foursquare, or sharing their thoughts on Yammer, you need to decide where you get the most return for your time. My advice? Stick with Facebook and Twitter to start. As you grow more comfortable with social networking, feel free to branch out, but you want to be where your customers actually are, not where you want them to be. Which brings us to:
  • Write for Your Audience, Not You: One of the worst things companies can do is to write for what they think the customer should be looking for – not what they actually are. It’s arrogant and it’s a waste of your time. For as much as you want your customer to search for your trademarked “Ultra-Deluxe Thing-o-Matic with Oscillating Whatcha-ma-callit Attachment,” chances are they’re searching for “That Thing.” You can try to force the issue, but I’d rather write where my potential customers are, as opposed to hoping they’ll magically figure out my secret password. Don’t use jargon and don’t rely on buzz-words because most people don’t speak like that.
  • Don’t forget the social part of social networking: Yes, you’re in business to sell products, but don’t forget that the one product nobody else can offer is yourself. Don’t be afraid to share your expertise, engage in conversations, and – perish the thought – have fun. If people like you and like what you have to say, they’ll be far more interested in what you have to sell. If you hammer them over the head each and every time with nothing but product ties, then you’re going to find yourself talking to a bunch of auto-follow fake accounts. Put it this way: behave like you would at a party – if a chance to talk business comes up, but don’t force the issue. Don’t be the guy who doesn’t get invited back.
  • Be You: Customers today are extremely savvy. The old relationship between vendor and customer is gone; now it’s all about interaction. Customers are talking to brands in ways we never thought possible years ago. And your brand is you – so be you. Don’t hide behind empty biz speak, don’t wrap yourself in legalese to the point that your posts say nothing, and DO share things that humanize your business. And the only way to successfully do that is to follow the most important rule:
  • Be Honest: Social media is so easy when you keep things honest. Don’t lie to your customers and don’t lie about who you are. You can be open and honest without divulging proprietary secrets. Just be honest about it. My simple rule: tell people what you can tell them and tell people what you can’t – but just tell them why. Customers respect competitive and legal restrictions. Just don’t lie and treat them like idiots.

Start small, take baby steps, and – most importantly – have fun. There’s no need to be intimidated by social media because YOU control how much and how fast you engage. Don’t get railroaded by some “expert” because there is truly only one expert that matters – and that’s you. You’re the person who knows your business and its clientele the best. Trust that expertise and weigh any recommendations against it — you don’t need to follow blindly because, at the heart of it, social networking is just an extension of what you already do with your customers.

And don’t worry about making mistakes along the way. They’ll happen. In fact, there’s an adage that I’ve taken to heart, which I first heard from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell: Don’t let perfect get in the way of better.

Be honest, be yourself, and take that first step. When it comes to being yourself, no one knows more than you, so carry that confidence with you and you’re halfway to success.

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