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By Stanford Smith, Contributing {grow} Columnist

We exchanged business cards, offered the obligatory “love your card” compliments, and sat down at the wobbly coffee shop table.

A week earlier, the business owner sent a friendly email asking for a “pick my brain” session.  Reluctantly I agreed to dispense advice in exchange for a $3.00 cup of coffee.  Ten minutes into our conversation, I realized that I should’ve charged!

My “client’s” business was teetering on insolvency. He had spent thousands on marketing and he still had a backroom full of inventory he couldn’t give away.  I listened to him list dozens of reasons why his sure-fire business hadn’t gained any traction: the economy, dumb customers, bad employees, the weather.  Everything had conspired to turn his dream into another failed business statistic.

But, he had one more idea.  A “Hail-Mary pass” that would save his business. He would “do some social media.”

That’s why he had made his smart $3.00 investment in our meeting.  I had a feeling he would be dumping the coffee in my lap before our time was up.

“I’m sorry, but social media can’t”

I have a “tell” a sign that I’m frustrated beyond words or consolation.   I remove my eyeglasses, pinch the bridge of my nose and expel a tortured sigh.  Those close to me understand the tell and backtrack, flee, or change the subject.  My friend across the teetering table missed the sign.

“Tell me something.  Why do you think social media can sell a product that no one wants?”

I swear the entire cafe stopped their conversations in mid-sentence in anticipation of brilliance or violence.

“Social media will help my customers understand my product,” he said. “I can tell my story directly to them.”  He almost had me.  Say story and social media in the same sentence and you have a fighting chance with almost any social media consultant.

Not this time.  I continued to work the bridge of my nose like an obsessive masseuse.

“I’m going to be frank with you,” I said with feigned sympathy. “Social media will only make your problem worse.  You have to have a compelling product first.  If you don’t social media will only pour gas on the fire that’s burning your business down.”

“By the way, can I get a danish with this coffee?”

A Tough Assessment

A great product and business model is essential for social media to work.  There has to be “something” that gets your customers talking.  It can be the retail experience.  It can be your fanatical attention to detail.  Whatever it is, it has to be compelling on its own.

Social media amplifies the appeal of a praise-worthy product.

Ideally, your customers are already talking about your product without your Facebook page or Twitter account.  Bloggers should be mentioning your product and directing customers to your website.  Your customers should be asking when you plan to write a blog.

If no one is talking about your product, or heaven forbid they are saying bad things, then you need to fix the product and repair the relationship first.  Social media can wait.

Be careful of anyone that insists that influencer programs, reputation management, and content marketing can sell a product that sucks.  They can’t. They only offer false hope.

What Social Media CAN Do…

Social media is the world’s largest and most effective focus group.  Find your customers and listen to what they are saying.  What products are they sharing?  What features are most popular?  What do they hate?

Use what you learn to improve your product. Then go back to this audience, pick a few of the most insightful and ask them to try out your product.  Again, listen to what they have to say.  Make the changes, go back, get volunteers, and start the process over again.

The smart kids in the lean startup community call this the “validated learning loop” and it works. Add the real-time feedback from social media and you have a precise and inexpensive way to calibrate your product’s appeal.

Once you’ve completed the tough work, you can turn your attention to exponentially increasing your audience with social media and content marketing.

Make sense?  How do you use social media to validate your product’s worth and appeal?

Contributing Columnist Stanford Smith obsesses about how to get passionate people’s blogs noticed and promoted at Pushing Social, except when he’s chasing large mouth bass!

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