How can small businesses and non-profits benefit from social media?
Social media holds the promise of connection between individuals, whether it’s with old friends or like-minded people across the world. The same is true for businesses that want to get their name out there and build their client base, and as MYOB has reported, the benefits are real: their survey found that almost a third of businesses have increased revenue through their online presence.
While the options available to businesses continue to evolve, it’s worth noting that consumers and populations are changing as well. This is particularly true with regards to expectations about a business’s public face and people’s comfort level in sharing information online. Witzig’s team of researchers found that young people are actually more likely to donate to non-profits online than through traditional means, which is a powerful reminder for any business that’s trying to build loyalty: social media isn’t going anywhere, so it’s probably worth investigating.
It’s easy to think of social media as a free lead-generating tool for businesses, with a world full of potential clients waiting with credit cards at the ready. I’ll unpack that thinking more later on, but I’d like to mention (for my own benefit as much as anyone else’s) that there’s more to it than advertising. A company’s social media presence can act as the first stage of a sales funnel, but if it has a page on LinkedIn it also gains access to a potential pool of new employees. There’s also potential for PR, with companies able to respond to issues and complaints promptly; preferably before other media get to take control of the narrative!
To sum up my answer to the main question, SMEs and non-profits can use social media as a comparatively cheap way to generate new leads. But a well-maintained social media presence can also help with PR matters, or any situation where information has to be passed on quickly. These issues are also tied up with branding and loyalty, as loyal customers are the name of the game. Witzig’s team makes the point that engaging with customers through social media is an opportunity for companies to come across as approachable and agile, rather than bureaucratic and distant.
As an example of this branding potential, I present my favourite instance of customers interacting with a business on Facebook. Tesco is a huge corporation, but their employee’s responses to a customer enquiry have helped them generate as huge amount of goodwill among the people commenting. There’s also all the publicity that comes from BBC coverage, which was no doubt shared again on the same social network.
How might social media use differ between small and large businesses?
According to Witzig and his team, non-profits appear to use social media more than businesses, while small businesses are more likely than large businesses to include links to LinkedIn on their websites. This is likely due in part to the low cost of social media, but Witzig also points out that small business’ CEOs are more likely to be on LinkedIn. He suggests that these CEOs feel less social distance from their customers, and may be more likely to be involved in operational matters – anecdotally, I can attest to this as I’ve heard of people approaching a company on LinkedIn and being contacted by the CEO for an interview.
Large businesses, on the other hand, likely have much more formal protocols in place for job applicants. At the same time, their offline reputation may be strong enough that they don’t need a huge LinkedIn presence to access potential employees.
How does mobile social media use differ for business users?
Wang has used the MST theory to examine SMEs’ B2B social media use. Media Synchronicity Theory is based on the premise that the better a medium performs as a communication tool, the more it can meet business needs and improve performance. To assess how well a medium performs, Wang identifies five criteria. I’ll do my best to explain how each of these relates to business and social media below.
The first criterion is transmission velocity; how fast does the message travel? Social media are highly synchronous according to Wang, because people can communicate in real time using mobile messaging applications. The second criterion, parallelism, sticks in the temporal realm by considering how much simultaneous communication the medium allows. Again, mobile apps rate highly for Wang thanks to their capacity for flexible group messaging. Extra useful information for users comes from indications of which group members are online and who has read each message.
Social media apps also allow pictures, videos and icons (emojis) to be transmitted. These symbol sets indicate a wide range of ways to encode information, which means more flexibility for business users. Messages may be drafted and carefully prepared before sending (rehearsability) and even edited after sending (reprocessability) if the app has that functionality.
Wang concludes that mobile social media apps have a potentially high level of media synchronicity, and thus potential for use in B2B communication. He notes another important dynamic though, which is not to do with technical capabilities: low-level B2B discussions may take place on an app, but many businesspeople still prefer to meet face-to-face for the most important discussions. We could probably write a book as to why this would be the case, but I have a hunch that we are still more comfortable looking being in the same room as someone when a lot is at stake. This isn’t just true in business: note that it’s considered rude to end a relationship in a text message (although today’s teenagers may feel differently!). There’s a sense that condensing and mediating the discussion in that way is also trivialising it, but this might be changing for people who have been using social media and text messaging for as long as they can remember.
What are some risks to businesses that use social media?
Security is the big one here. MYOB reports that SMEs in New Zealand are becoming more concerned about cybersecurity, and that some are switching to cloud services that can better protect their data. The thinking is that cloud companies have more resources to put into data protection, although there are considerations about overseas storage and what happens to the data if the cloud provider goes out of business.
The Asian SMEs that Wang and his team spoke to also raised concerns about security of a different type. Managers were concerned that sensitive material could be leaked inadvertently by sending the wrong message to the wrong person, while app vendors may be able to access user discussions. On top of all this, the fact that employees install social media apps on their own devices makes tracing any leak extremely difficult. Wang concludes that app users should draft messages carefully, and that businesses should have a comprehensive social media policy.
The final risk I can think of – and this is mainly for businesses that use social media for B2C communication – is that members of the public use social media pages as a place to complain or otherwise disrupt the communication. Actually, as public social media pages are a space for people to take potshots at companies without any consequences, it’s probably closer to an inevitability than a risk. How to deal with this? I would say in the same way as a person would in everyday life: with good humour and a bit of class.