By Stanford Smith, Contributing {grow} Columnist

They say that the rich just get richer and the poor get poorer.  Seems this brutal maxim applies to social media too; big brands crush smaller upstarts in a blizzard of social gimmicks and PR.

Savvy startups understand this law and struggle to achieve scale before larger competitors recognize the threat.  Even social media’s egalitarian roots can’t vaccinate it against the big brand onslaught.  Just review the latest “top social media brand” list to see evidence of the Fortune 100’s adroit use of the latest social tools.

So, can the little gal (guy) still compete?

Absolutely.

 

How Social Tools Level the Competitive Playing Field

As social tools mature, small brands are finding ways to use them to wage a competitive insurgency against the 800-pound gorillas in their space.  In fact, there are abundant signs that the small guys may be gaining an important competitive edge.

 

Successful small-brand insurgents cleverly use social media to create vibrant, closely-knit communities with a particular twist.  You see, while big brands mistakenly count on big numbers, small brands builds their communities around their company’s passion and core values. These values sustain the community and their passions turn normal people into extraordinary evangelists.

Ironically, while big brands can create cool promotions they often stumble in the “authenticity” department.  Furthermore, they struggle with creating long-term relationships with communities.  After all, quarterly earnings usually dictate the half-life for any great idea.

A Little Inspiration for the Social Trenches

 

Recently, I went looking for truly innovative small brands that were kicking big brand butt.  I examined their social media activities searching for the key drivers of their success.  In the end, I found four specific ways that the most successful small brands use social tools to gain a competitive advantage:

1) Build awareness of their unique brand proposition: Facebook’s 600 million+ member platform competes with Television as an efficient branding tool.  For a relatively miniscule investment, smart businesses are out-foxing bigger competitors.

 

Example:

Moxsie (http://twitter.com/#!/moxsie) is a fashion retailer that caters to indie fashion-philes.  They beat larger fashion houses by giving their audience access to high-end fashion in real time via twitter and their Facebook presence.  Their appreciative fan’s spread their unique slant on fashion far and wide.

2) Responding to customer feedback in real-time:  Small brands view Twitter, Facebook, and their blog as canaries in the mine that indicate danger or opportunity.  Negative experiences are transformed into customer service wins that get spread rapidly around the web.  Aggressive brands have mastered the art of watching their competitor’s streams and beating them to the punch.

 

Examples:

 

Naked Pizza: (http://twitter.com/nakedpizza) is using a full arsenal of social tools to aggressively grow its presence in the mature and hypercompetitive pizza market.  Their secret weapon? They have installed Twitter Kiosks in every retail location to gather customer feedback in real-time.

3) Intentional Tribe building: It’s tempting for large brands to take their audiences for granted.  It’s easy to create a 100,000+ Facebook community when you can use a Superbowl commercial to build your following.

On the other hand, small brands have limited time and resources.  Each follower is precious and Tribe building is taken very seriously. Comments get high-level attention, every new Twitter follower is welcomed, Facebook Likes are treated like gold.  Equal attention is given to growing, nurturing, and pruning the tribe.

 

Etsy’s http://twitter.com/etsy Tribe is diverse and powerful.  Etsy publicly celebrates the contribution of every tribe member.  Social sharing tools are tightly integrated into each customer touch point throughout the community.  The handmade DIY leaders platform is more than a match for any big-budget retailer.

4) Link Social branding with Sales:  Small brands need sales to survive. They can’t wait years for a brand to mature. They need to see revenue from all of their online channels – including channel.  The most nimble brands find stunning ways to turn their social equity into foot-traffic.

Example:

Marmite (http://www.marmiteshop.co.uk/) raced to be the first retailer to use Facebook sampling ads to get samples of its new Marmite Chocolate bars into the hands of Facebook users.  Its quick action leveraged its Facebook audience while beefing up its bottom line with new customers.

How to Win

 

If you are staring down a giant then remember that your size can be an advantage.  You can outwit, outlast, and outplay your competitors by using social tools to beat them to the punch.  Here are some pointers:

  • Never Miss A Chance to Start a Conversation: Your customers want to know you.  Give them every opportunity to reach out and talk to a real person.  Take this one step further by including an invitation to talk on your product packaging, email signatures, website content and so on.
  • Extend Your Brand’s Story: Think of your brand as a 3D full-sensory story.  Then take your story apart and distribute it across the social web.  Stunning photos and stills camp out on Flickr. Entertaining culture “shots” and product demonstrations hang out on YouTube.  Your Manifesto lives on your blog and is discussed on Facebook.
  • Equip Your Evangelists: Quickly find your evangelists and equip them to tell your brand story. Have fun with this.  Support and retweet your fanatics on Twitter. Give them sneak peeks at new product.  Offer them free services and pay special attention to what they have to say.  Put your evangelists at the core of your social strategy and follow their lead.

This is (Much) Easier Than You Think

You just have to get started.  Once you’ve made social branding part of your DNA you will be surprised how easy it is to steal the show from the big boys.

What do you think?  What challenges do you have with using social media to build your business’ brand?

Stanford Smith is a hopelessly addicted angler, father of 3 hellions, and the wild-eyed muse behind PushingSocial.com. Follow him on Twitter to get his latest unorthodox tips for getting your blog noticed and promoted.

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