4 Ways to Use Social Media to Beat the Big Boys

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?



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.



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.




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.


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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  • I find it amazing sometimes how a small guy today can compete with the big guys. If you have the right angle then there’s nothing you can’t accomplish these days with the internet.

  • Don’t you just love social media because of that, you know, another fact to put into this is that small businesses are actually doing better in social media compared to bigger companies, it was a fact that came up by emartketer a while back.

    In my opinion the key to all those is because the smaller players spend more time “getting to know” the people, creating a community of people, which bigger businesses can’t afford to do. They don’t go to people much, they wait more people to go for them more. Unless they are listening to any problems.

    Great post Stan.

  • Almost piggybacking Aaron, a HUGE advantage that smaller brands/people have is the lack of corporate politics. There are rules, both written and unwritten, to everything. The bigger the company, the deeper the rules.

    Smaller brands have the advantage of trying new things and finding out what works much easier than policy-laden operations where people are delegated, drive, and often ignored. And you’re right, in those cases, there is a microscope on how it affects the bottom line.

    Simply put: It’s easier to try.

  • Kevin Kirkpatrick

    Ever notice how the big boys have a gazillion followers and follow just a few?

  • Great ideas
    1 Sometimes the hardest thing to convince small businesses of is that they only new a few more good customers for a marketing strategy to payoff. When you’re small it is much easier to focus on quality, you should worry about getting to the “mass” audience.

  • This is great stuff, Stanford, as usual. I think the challenge lies in scaling this process as a little guy turns into a big one (that is the goal, isn’t it?) The inability for bigger brands to act in the way you’ve outlined is exactly why they struggle to “keep it real” in social media. I think you’re absolutely right that social media can help you grow into a bigger presence, but the challenge is: how can you scale this approach once you get there?

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  • Thanks Aaron for the comment and you are right on. The larger companies are crisis driven which means they miss a lot of opportunities for engagement. Opportunities that smaller brands can capitalize on.

  • Successful organizations scale their social presence by 1) Refining their culture to embrace ongoing conversation and 2) Empowering their entire company to engage. You are right, scale is difficult to achieve when the responsibility is hoarded by one (resource constrained) department.

  • You’ve hit the nail on the head. I wonder if this blind spot occurs because small businesses struggle with measuring the impact of a few good customers on their bottom line. Worth thinking about…

  • Yep. I wonder how many of those gazillions are just spam-bots. If they don’t have the time to follow then I’m sure they don’t have time to vet their audience.

  • Paul, I think the lack of politics is part of the answer. The lack of politics is probably a sign of a customer-focused culture that embraces engagement.

  • Amen, my friend. Amen.

  • Anonymous

    I love that two of my favorite people are working together! Thanks for brining Stan over here, Mark!

    I think small businesses definitely have the edge in building a vibrant, engaged community. People and businesses often want tens of thousands of fans and followers, but what they really need is a smaller number of the RIGHT fans.

    The other thing that small businesses forget is that gynormous communities are much more difficult to manage and require a lot more effort to develop the authentic relationships you were talking about. And let’s not forget the time, money and resources it takes to keep the engine running when your community is that large. Maybe that’s what some businesses want, but I have a feeling that people wish for that without recognizing what it will take to maintain the relationships they were able to develop on the smaller scale.

    Small businesses need to embrace their ability to be nimble and develop deeper relationships with their tribe.

    Good stuff, Stan!

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  • Definitely agree. And maybe that’s good fodder for your next post, because “refining their culture to embrace ongoing conversation” is much easier said than done.

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  • What an excellent post! I’m working with a very new, very small company right now, and these are things that we struggle with – not just for ourselves, but with our clients. It’s sometimes difficult to explain to people that *relationships* are so important!

  • Yeah, smaller companies are more outgoing. I have worked with a mid size company before and they gave me a huge list of don’t’s. In fact I didn’t really know what I was suppose to do after without looking at the list of don’ts.

  • Anonymous


    Fantastic stuff as always. What’s funny is I think that the smaller more lean organizations have the competitive advantage when it comes to social media. They think outside the box and aren’t caught up in rules, regulations and legal jargon. They take risks and they’re willing to be creative. In my talk today at this conference I’m going to actually mention what organizations could learn from applying the mindset of individuals and small lean organizations.

    Never Missing A Conversation: This is powerful. You can leverage conversation wherever it happens. I always tell people never underestimate that first person who comments on your blog. That’s the beginning of your digital lifeline. Conversation happens everywhere and you can extend it and grow that relationship.

    Extending the Story: The other day I was telling somebody “we’re not just creating content here. We’re making history because people will study what we’ve done 100’s of years from now the same way we’ve studied drawings on the inside of caves.” Kind of cool when you think about it. Extending the story is so powerful. I think at the root of an effective social media or blogging presence is the ability to tell a story.

    The Evangelists: This is the most underrated group of people in my mind. There’s nothing more powerful than the evangelists because they will go out and spread the word for you and not because you’re asking them, but because they want to. These customers are so valuable it’s awesome.

    Looking forward to seeing all the discussion around this post.

  • Anonymous

    I like the way you think Laura. Not to mention you use cool words like gynormous.

    We do ask for things that we are often not ready for. “I want 1000’s and 1000’s like so and so… oh … shoot now I have to authentically connect, provide meaty meaningful content and genuinely care about all these tweepellets.

    You demonstrate your grasp of the KEY 3 things (thanks Mark Schaefer for the investment in my understanding) in your opening sentence as you both complement and promote two from your tweeplet tribe. Then moving directly into thoughtful content.

    Thanks Stan for getting such a totally farout ball of community rolling with this post.

  • Hey there Laura!
    I’m super honored to be on {grow} – it’s been a fun day responding to everyone.
    I think you’ve described how the smaller guy can use the goliath’s size against them. Faster, nimbler, smarter social media always beats brute force branding.


  • Srini, excellent comment (as always). I’m going to leave it there because I absolutely agree with you 100%. Just this once though 🙂

  • Thanks Tab. Hang in there and fight the good fight. Relationships is quickly becoming the most effective competitive advantage that small brands have at their disposal.

  • Adrienne

    Hey Stan,

    Oh how I do love social media! I’m aware that a lot of having online success has to do with building relationships and I think that’s something the big companies miss out on. We seem to build a great community of prospects who are eager to learn and grow and when you have taken the time to build relationships with them, they see you as someone who is trustworthy. Big companies don’t seem to take this type of approach. Of course, they can kill us with paid advertising because they have the big bucks to spend but in the end, social media will win overall.

    That’s my view and I’m sticking to it! 🙂 Thanks Stan, great post.


  • Stan rocks. My favorite writer on the web!

  • @ jimgenet …yes! I like the “feel” of a smaller company/ community.

    I like to get to know my “followers” a little….

    I have worked for small companies and I’ve worked for larger ones…I would take small biz or home biz any day………remove 1/2 of the BS!

    And it still surprises me how many small and mid size companies DON’T use social media yet!

  • Excellent advice, Stanford! I really like the examples you included because they’re not the case studies we hear about every day. Thanks for sharing all this insight!

  • Yeah i think you have not missed even on a single point over here.Everyone over here is your competitor and you have to take all efforts to optimize your website in such a way so that it would be the best in the market.

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  • Hi
    This is my first visit on this blog, and I think I will come back for more.
    I think that a lot of the “big guys” are a little scared of social media. Some big companies think of Social Media as unserious and other doesn’t want to get to close to their customers online. I think many of the big guys are too conservative about Social Media and that is where the small guys have an advantage.

  • Agree! Well said. And thanks for becoming part of the community Thomas!

  • Anonymous

    Couldn’t agree more!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the kind words, Jim. And yes, gynormous is one of my favorite fake words ever. 😉

  • Anonymous

    With your permission I may borrow it from time to time

  • Go for it : )

  • Hi Stan,

    Love this post, your voice and the fact that Mark has you writing here.
    The image is perfect!

    One of the platforms I’ve been very interested in since it launched is Instagram —25 million users and counting.
    I’ve been watching closely as the little guys outdo the big ones time and time again there.
    In fact for most big brands Instagram is under the radar (there are a few exceptions Jamie Oliver is doing a fantastic job).

    Many micro brands have built five and six figure followings and the level of engagement is amazing. I’ve seen an artist launch a product line because her Instagram followers asked for it.
    These little guys are leveraging their followings into real world business benefits. It’s compelling to watch and something I’m working with clients to integrate into their businesses.

    Thanks for reminding us that size doesn’t matter.

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