How does a small business move into social media marketing?

I recently received this excellent question from one of my students:

Big global companies usually have a social media department but medium and small companies usually add this job for some marketing or PR manager in addition to his area of responsibility or hire some cheap employee or intern — with negative results.  So how should a small business with limited resources realistically approach social media marketing?

The time and resources needed to be effective in social media is certainly a problem for companies big and small. I think we can burst the bubble by now  — social media is NOT free. In fact, large brands are devoting a significant part of their marketing budget into these efforts.

There seems to be no choice — most companies must develop some competency in this channel. In addition to the obvious reason that social media has become a preferred method of communication (and complaining) for many demographic groups, other marketing channels are drying up.

The transition to a social marketing mindset is difficult for companies of any size!  One huge consumer goods company laid-off 1,500 marketers last month because they didn’t have the right skillset to move into the future. Another global brand I work with has literally tested the digital competency of every marketing person in their company. Low scorers are going through mandatory training, medium scorers are going through advanced training and even high scorers are going through a series of “TED talk”-like seminars.

These represent two strategies toward this transition — jettison ineffective resources or aggressively re-train them.

But let’s get back to the original question, what if you’re a small business and have very few resources to begin with?  How do you make this transition?

The big difference is, as a small business owner, you have less room for error.  You probably don’t have the luxury of hiring a new team to create a social media effort.  So here are some ways to minimize the risk during this transition:

1) Do a reality check. Before committing to a new plan, conduct a simple survey or get out and talk to your customers. Where are they spending their time?  What are your competitors doing?  Keep in mind that there is probably a first-movers advantage for many businesses so don’t overlook the fact that creating a competency in social media marketing could be a source of competitive advantage.

2) Learn. To move ahead with social media for your business, you don’t have to be an expert, but you do have to learn enough to at least ask the right questions.  If you’re just starting out, here is a video series that can help get you quickly up to speed on the basics:  Social Media From Scratch.

3) Set real goals. What are your company’s critical needs right now? How can some of these new social media opportunities specifically align with your goals? Don’t get caught up in the hype. Your budget probably does not have much room for “extra,” so think through how this activity will best move the needle for your business.

4) Get professional help. 95% of the companies I see engaging in social media are simply checking a box and not getting much out of the effort. In other words, they had somebody’s cousin create the company Facebook page.  For the first six months, it usually makes sense to invest in a marketing professional to give you some guidance and speed you through the learning curve.

It’s like strapping yourself to an instructor the first time you skydive. After a couple trips, you’re ready to go it alone. When seeking expert help, ask this question: What previous marketing experience do you have and can you show me measurable results of your social media efforts? That will weed out most self-proclaimed “gurus!”

5) Don’t view social media as an “add on.” Before you hire a new social media team, I would first look at where you are spending your current budget and resources – is it time to simply re-adjust?  For example, spending on newspaper advertising has declined by 75% in the US (down to 1950s levels).  If you have been spending much of your time on traditional forms of advertising, it might be time to move those resources to something else. You have to go where your customers are.  Should you re-allocate?  If you just pile more work on to existing employees this will probably fail.

6) Re-frame the opportunity. Here is some good news. Ten years ago, you would take out an ad and wait for something to happen. Today, literally every employee can be involved in “marketing” as a beacon for your company on the social web. It’s a new way of thinking, isn’t it? How can you capture employee incremental time or down time? How can you involve and engage the many networks of your employees, customers, and other stakeholders?

Another way to re-frame the opportunity is that marketing through the social web can possibly be a great equalizer for small businesses. For a little bit of time and effort, you can potentially have a very powerful impact and possibly reach vast new audiences.

7) Realistic expectations.  For many small companies, the result from social media marketing is more like the long-term benefits of networking at a chamber of commerce meeting than the short-term benefits of issuing a coupon in the newspaper. Don’t get me wrong — short-term benefits are certainly possible — but in general, aim for long-term benefits such as increasing customer loyalty.

I’ve worked with many small businesses and start-ups so I know how painful and risky these marketing decisions can be.  I’d love to hear from you. What additional recommendations would you give a small business trying to make begin a social media marketing program?

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  • Mine would be don’t fall for “cheap” services as they often an go wrong. I learned my lesson and wasted a few months when I decide to go that route.

    Next would be, be patient. Social media takes time and work, also it’s not a one trick pony that can do everything.

    Another would be, seek help and never stop asking, there are amazing people out there who will help point to the right direction like you mark 🙂

  • Sushil Krishna

    Great leaning & insight full post..!

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  • My suggestion is that you need to represent your own brand. I actually had a friend ask me for how he could get results for cheap – by having a “guy in Pakistan” represent the Vancouver Canucks (hockey team). You know your brand, your new intern does not. It MIGHT take a bit of work, but think – what will it cost you when your competitors do it right and you do not?

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  • Thanks for taking the time to comment Sushil!

  • Certainly outsourcing authenticity can be a perilous path. Thanks Saul!

  • Three excellent points Aaron. Thanks for sharing your wisdom today!

  • Oil Skimmers

    These are some useful tips for small businesses, thanks!

  • Anonymous

    I would add the advice you gave me Mark, some time ago – Immerse yourself in social to learn about it.
    Obviously your work is up there at the top (!) but there is so much knowledge out there for anyone with a mind to look for it its not true!
    For SMEs their business is a relentless obsession and they need to include scrying the online world for the best it has to offer, as well as to learn to spot the fakes, into their daily habits. Your point about employing a ‘professional’ is crucial here I think, but any self resepcting professional can provide themselves with a lot of learning too.
    I think thats one of my favourite things about blogs, the comments communities and Twitter especially, that ability to learn for ‘free’. Has their ever been opportunity like it?
    Great article as ever, thanks!

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  • Excellent advice for my small business clients but they also apply to nonprofits who also need to be using social media but often can’t dedicate someone to it.

  • Absolutely love this resource.

    I really like your point about not thinking of social media as an Add-On but readjustment of resources… This is a huge point for small businesses that have a first instinct of “I can’t take anything additional on…”

    It’s more of a Realignment or Refocus.

    Great stuff.


    Ryan H.

  • Very true Ryan. I think people are very capable of doing “sprints” when they need to, but institutionalizing more work in the same amount of time is difficult in the long-term.

  • Good point James. I probably should have made the topic of the blog more broad. It certainly applies to a wide variety of organizations.

  • This is certainly an epic time for people who want to learn for themselves with all the free resources out there. However, I also realize that can be time-consuming too. Luckily there are also some good professional resources to rely on too! Many thanks for adding your insight today Tony!

  • Thanks for commenting.

  • I especially like 4, 5, & 7. For 4, I love how you frame it as getting help and guidance to launch. This is important because it is far different than outsourcing the whole shebang. And for 5, too many businesses see it as an add-on; something “extra” as opposed to integral to the whole process.

    And I see a lot of businesses jump in and abandon their efforts because they don’t see the results quickly. This isn’t an overnight proposition.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Mark,

    Glad I checked in on Twitter today and saw this. SM is a huge stumbling block for me and Engaging Minds. All your advice is well taken. The struggle for me, however, stems from my model. At EM, I do everything except work the students. And, as it goes, I end up spending too much time working *in* the business rather than *on* the business. And while delivering an outstanding product is the key to excellent WOM and building the business organically, being able to find the time to work *on* the business (social media and biz dev) is equally important. I’m confident I’m not alone in this. The challenge is to somehow find the time to learn about SM and all it offers (#2 in your post) and find/allocate the resources to get professional help (#4 in your post). Or, I could find the resources to have someone take over part of my day-to-day “in-the-business” responsibilities so I can devote more time to working “on-the-business”. Either way, as a small business coming up on its 20 month anniversary, it’s a bit of a challenge to find the appropriate/necessary resources (both time and dollars).

    What I’ve come to as a decision is not ideal but it’s the best I can do given the early stages of my business — I’m bringing in an MBA intern this summer to tackle SM and all that goes with it. My hope is that by the end of the summer, with some guidance from me, the intern will be able to present the best opportunities for Engaging Minds in the SM world — including everything from Facebook marketing to effective use of LinkedIn to the benefits of blogging for SEO to Google AdWords (and anything/everything else in between).

    I’ll let you know how it goes.

    Thanks for keeping us thinking,


  • First, it is simply great to see you back in the comment stream Dan!

    This is certainly a vital topic. Working “in” and “on” cannot be separated. You can’t really thrive without both. If your excellent business is the “content,” you still have to ignite it somehow with marketing.

    I think hiring an intern is a very good idea. It helps people all around doesn’t it?

    I probably should write some more about this topic. It is really a struggle for so many people. Thanks for bringing your real-world insight into the comment section. Please keep in touch so i know how it is going for you!

  • You are quite right Ken. I think it is EXTREMELY difficult to get results from social media marketing. It takes a lot of time and skill. The amount of work involved is typically under-estimated and it needs to be rolled in to the everyday operation of many businesses. Thanks for adding your insight ken!

  • Great list, Mark. I think this is a very real challenge for many businesses. I’ve written about this recently too – I think understanding goals and what you want to get out of social media is very important before you dive in. For way too many businesses, they just want to have shiny social icons on their site without thinking about what they want to do with social media.

    The only thing I would add would be to start small. I would rather see a business really take the time to master one or two networks first instead of diving into four or five and then abandon them because they can’t stick with it.. I think there’s this feeling that businesses need to be everywhere, which isn’t necessarily true or very effective.

    I also like @askaaronlee:disqus’s point. Success with social doesn’t come overnight. This is a marathon, not a sprint!

  • Start small — That is such a great point. I need to add it to the post!!! Can’t believe I missed that. I agree that is a real key to success. Stay focused and take it one step at a time.

  • Anonymous

    This is very interesting. I work with a number of non profits as a volunteer advisor and thats certainly the blockage.
    Cruelly ironic given that social media provides so much of benefit to that exact type of organisation!

  • {Commenting from Mozilla Firefox, since a comment box does not appear on IE8.}.

    Thank you Mark for sharing your thoughts on how a small business is able to begin to move into a social media marketing program.

    Here are my recommendations… be creative, grounded, innovative, patient, and trust your marketing decision-vision for your company!

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  • Thanks for your insight … and tenacity! : )

  • Well said Tony.

  • I had a meeting last week on this subject but with a twist ~ how do I get my customers to join me on social media?

    I had a real life meeting with one of my twitter chat friends who has a local business with more than local reach. First we determined where most of his customers were… networking via Rotary……what if he started a #Rotary chat? Do you realize how much time and effort it takes to put together a viable chat? Could your time be better spent? Where could this time be better spent? The conclusion after some more “Right Questions” focused on the possibly of presenting to the local Rotary on Social Media (I offered to help doing a duo presentation) and seeing what response we might get. I also suggested he bring the “Tao of Twitter” into the Rotary mix; short, easy to understand and totally “business” respectable. What outcome might we expect? My local biz owner friend would gain added respect (on account of his social media savvy) within his networking group resulting in more sales to his existing business or maybe they might ask for social media guidance?

    That’s the next area we discussed, should he get de-focused from his business and head into being a social media expert? This post will also be another great ingredient to add to the mix. Thank you Mark, as always.

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  • Mark, what you said about newspaper advertising also holds true for “Yellow Pages” advertising. I’m always surprised when I still get sales calls asking me if I want to place an ad in my local yellow pages. i think I get more business from Google Local Places, Yelp, and FourSquare than I ever would or could from advertising in the phone book.

  • Oh gosh yes, So true Wendy. Great point!

  • I think this is a very interesting and relevant case Caroline. Similar to a situation I had with one of my clients. She said her customers were not into social media — which we found through research to be true. However, they also said in the survey that learning about social media was their number one concern. So by getting ahead of the curve she was able to position herself and her business as a helpful authority. Sounds like an interesting opportunity you have there.

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  • As a marketing student, it can be quite daunting to read ”
    One huge consumer goods company laid-off 1,500 marketers last month because they didn’t have the right skillset to move into the future.” My favourite line though, is “creating a competency in social media marketing could be a source of competitive advantage.” This is so true, and it is precisely why your blog, and blogs like this, are so valuable! Thanks Mark for what you do- great post!

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  • My pleasure… and thank you! : )

  • Wendy, on the flip side… I’m always surprised when I get referrals from advertising placed in the “yellow pages” years ago. What’s that all about?

  • Dr. Rae, it is very interesting when that happens. I have had people come see me before from an article that was in the newspaper 3 years earlier. I’m even more surprised when they bring in the actual article that they clipped out all of those years ago.

  • Many thanks Annette and good luck with your career pursuits!

  • This is a great package deal, Mark. I love how you’ve summarized the points into simple, actionable steps/approaches. The fundamental problem, I feel, is the level of intimidation social media instills in companies and individuals tasked with establishing and managing social presence.

    I usually tell people/companies to stop being afraid and take the dive; it’s easier than they give it credit for.

    A few pointers I’ve found helpful to share are:
    1. In-source rather than outsource. A lot of companies treat social media like an outsiders job – something any old agency can manage. I strongly believe against this. After all, who can represent your home better than the homeowner him/herself?

    2. Scale with care, consideration and relevance. Don’t establish footprints and presence unless the medium makes sense for your business.

    3. Manage realistic expectations (like Aaron said) – keep time and effort confined to a considerate amount. It truly takes time to make your presence known/useful to others.

    4. Social teams need to have a social demeanor. I’ve never thought of giving my social media work to anyone who doesn’t have the personality ingredients. I’ve just trained 3 new resources how to use twitter, before which they had only heard of the tool as something people use to waste time. See them now.

    5. Lastly – keep it real. Companies in Pakistan still use their social media activities centered around pure marketing tools, like ATL. I tell them to think more like BTL initiatives – offline engagement, converted to an online world with greater reach and much much more (focused) real-time visibility.

  • Great article — these are all things that are important to keep in mind for small businesses and organizations new to social media. However, I think they actually have a natural advantage over the big guys — authenticity. In my experience, social media is best treated when companies approach it as if they’re entering into people’s circles of friends. Being personal and real are very important, and that’s something very natural for a small business. I wrote up a bit more about this here if anyone’s interested:

  • Zohaire, this is an exceptional list of points. Many thanks for sharing your wisdom today. I’ve noticed you in the Twitter stream and I look forward to learning from you. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  • I agree with you. I believe strongly that small businesses can have an advantage in this space — if they understand what they’re doing, and unfortunately they usually don’t/ Thank you for sharing your link. I am on the road and don;t have time to view it now but I will try to look at it over the weekend. Many thanks!

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  • GeraldMoczynski

    And as the other half of Caroline’s conversation that day, I don’t think that offering a service to educate my clients about social media “marketing” is so wildly different from the logo wear marketing we offer. It seems to have no connection at first, but they’re both get companies into a meaningful conversation opportunity with a prospect.

    Logo wear creates visual credibility in the subconscious eye of a consumer — “I don’t see an employee ID on this Stranger Danger at my door, but that shirt he’s wearing means he must be the plumber I called to my house, so I’ll let him inside.” It also generates in-person inquiries much like direct mail, except that the inquirer is asking the company representative about the company and asking for a business card while sitting in a coffee shop or in line at the grocery store.

    My trip down the social media learning curve taught me that my way of utilizing it is to build relationships with targeted professionals and finding ways to leverage that network based upon the length, depth, and value of relationships created — just like “real life.”

    Both tools get you to a conversation with a human being who is hopefully prepared to educate the prospect and carry the lead to the next step.

    So the questions become:
    1) What’s my time worth?
    2) What’s my clients’ time worth?
    3) What’s the opportunity cost of neglecting core business (which is an ungrounded assumption, but is nevertheless a legitimate risk)?
    4) What additional resources can I bring to the table to offset that risk and/or add value?

  • Mark, I am head over heels about your statement >> “Today, literally every employee can be involved in ‘marketing’ as a beacon for your company on the social web.” Companies who embrace this new mentality, strategically invest in empowering their employees, and keep their eye on the long-game will grow leaps and bounds over the competition. The world is simply moving too fast to NOT utilize all your greatest assets… your people! 🙂

  • I went to a great presentation the other day. This company said: “We have a no idiots social media policy, meaning we assume that we are not hiring idiots and that any employee is capable of representing us on the social web. I like that.

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  • Bill R.

    Nicely put Mark! I really appreciated “get professional help” and “realistic expectations” (“patience grasshopper”). Both extremely important to success! For a one or two person shop, finding the resources (time. talent) internally, or the cash to bring in a professional partner are monster challenges.
    Especially in a small business setting, getting all the staff involved in the social media game can be helpful. An associate of mine created a challenge among the staff to add “followers” to their company page. Appropriate prizes were awarded to the winning team.
    Here’s a free idea (maybe not new)! Incentives to staff for mentioning the company or linking to the website or blog on Twitter, Facebook, or in industry related online discussions. I think that might even be helpful for,, or @brsimplebiz, three of my favorites

  • Hi Mark!
    Thanks for some good points you have lay down here. Exactly, you must go where your customers are. Social media sites are great avenue where you can generate potential customers. Investing extra effort on this marketing channel could really give you an extra edge towards your competitors. Technology have given us various opportunities to create new ways, ideas that will in turn create new business. It’s up to us on how to use it.

  • So many small businesses are at least aware of the different social media channels – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest, Google+ and many more. The problem is they’ve been told they need to be on all of them. And some of them are. The result tends to be that they can’t keep up with everything and when you look at their Facebook or other channels you see the last post was 6 months ago.
    I think getting help is money well spent. It can be in helping the business decide which channels to use and why. Or getting their page/profile set up. Or mentoring how to use the tools available (such as Groups and Answers on LinkedIn). Helping the business feel comfortable in using the channel.
    This is a great post (that I will share!) and there are some great comments, too.

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  • Jenny Brennan

    Slow and steady – building a long-term strategy that won’t find a business owner burnt out because they joined every social network known to man – I’ve seen it time and again – I call it the rabbit in the headlight effect!

    Know what your business marketing goals are and choose the right channel to communicate, engage and build long-term and loyal relationships with customers.

    Read Mark’s content – I discovered this blog a few weeks back and get great value from it for my own business and my client’s.

    Always be happy to learn and know that you will not always have the answer – thankfully we live in an age where there are so many great and informed people sharing their knowledge so I’d say learn from them and interact with them – you never know who you might learn from or who might learn from you!

    That’s my tuppence worth hope it helps someone out there 🙂

  • Janet Arnold

    Reading the article and the comments has been the best marketing advice I have received to date. Aiming for the long-term benefits can get lost in the instant release and reply environment of social media. I am taking the team contribution tidbit and giving it more than serious thought. What comes to my mind before I move on it however, is a social media policy at work, for team members. I want it to be beneficial to all, and leave no room for error. Thanks to everyone who contributed. Great value here.

  • Vijay Sharma

    Thanks for the article. I personally believe for a small or medium business the CEO is the brand ambassador and sometimes also acts as the face of the company who sometimes ultimately brings business to the company. As a result the usage of social media should start from the top instead of depending on a marketing or third party. Engaging & answering your customers directly can be a great advantage for any size of business but it can certainly add a lot of value for SME’s in building a solid brand.

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  • Cecilia

    Totally agree! Both small and big businesses should move to the social media: being social means building relationships with your customers. However, I’ve found that many companies only post about themselves and are too bored to look for relevant content to share with their customers/followers. Posting more about yourself and less about others breaks the relationship with your niche. 80% of what you share should be about others, not yourself. There’s a great tool that can help come up with that 80% of content that is not yours but is still specific to your target audience.
    It’s called ZootRock.

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