An edited version of this piece appeared in Business Week on May 26, 2009
Comedian Jim Gaffigan has a suggestion for preparing a Hot Pockets frozen entrée. “Take out of package. Place directly in toilet.”
Gaffigan’s not a big fan of Hot Pockets. He doesn’t like exercise either. But he is a lover of bacon (“without bacon, no one would even know what a water chestnut is.”). And he’s a successful user of social networking sites.
You’ll see him on Facebook and MySpace and Twitter. He keeps people up to date on his concerts, his albums, his TV appearances, his napping. For a one man band like Jim, who probably has a decent amount of free time between eating bacon and being on stage, social networking is a great vehicle for marketing his business and keeping close to his fans.
Gaffigan’s a social networking success story. Unfortunately, and like the nutritional value of Hot Pockets, many business owners cannot say the same. We’ve been mislead as to the benefits of social networking sites. We’re finding that these tools, especially for small business, are not living up to the hype for all of us. Because once we start digging deeper, we’re finding a lot of challenges. Time and money challenges.
So are you thinking of using Facebook, Twitter or the like in your business? Yes, they may work for you. But maybe not. So before you go any further, consider these myths.
Myth #1 – Social Media Sites Are Free.
First of all, using social media sites aren’t as easy or as cheap as people think. Sure, most of these sites allow you to setup an account for free. And you can integrate other services, like your blog or youtube videos at no charge. But there’s a significant cost: your time. Because there’s nothing worse than a site that’s not current. And to keep it current someone’s going to need to spend time. This includes responding to visitors’ questions, posting brilliant thoughts, adding graphics, monitoring activity….basically trying to generate a buzz.
Gaffigan seems to peruse his sites all the time. Bacon is still yummy days after it’s cooked. But old information, non-responded comments and a stagnant site is like death in the social networking community. I recently moderated a small business town hall forum. The company sponsoring the event, had two full time “social media writers” covering the event. They recognize that keeping a presence on these sites takes some resources. Unfortunately, many of us don’t have that kind of time or the cash on hand.
Myth #2 – Social Media Sites Are A Great Place To Find New Customers
Here’s another thing: the major sites aren’t necessarily the best places for a business owner to use. Facebook’s and MySpace’s core audience still are pimply adolescents and goth-like teenagers. Sure, there’s a growing number of forty-somethings. But we all know the deal. They’re just nostalgic to check out their old boyfriends and girlfriends from their youth to see how fat and bald they’ve become. Twitter has millions of users but apparently only four of them actually understand what it does. Are these the people who will buy the plastic polymer gaskets that your company manufacturers? I don’t think so. Unless those gasket buying customers are also discussing Amy and Ricky’s baby. Like me.
Myth #3 – The Most Popular Sites Have The Most Potential Customers
Get the last reference? Then you’re not a fan of the Secret Life of The American Teenager . Most likely, neither is the target audience for your gaskets. So where do you go? The best social networking sites for business owners are specific to business owners. For example Intuit’s Inc. social media people are on their own small business community . Another good one is Bank of America’s small business community . These sites, and there are others, are catered specifically for people running their own companies. Industry groups have started their own communities. Technology manufacturers have their own communities too. They used to be called “newsgroups” and “support sites” but now the new vernacular is “communities.” Same thing. These are places where business owners and managers go to post questions about product problems, customer service questions, saving taxes, generating leads, hiring employees, eating bacon. You don’t hear about these sites in the news because they’re boring as hell. But then again so are most of us who run small businesses.
Myth #4 – You Need A Presence On All The Big Sites
Besides spending a bunch of time and effort, the business owners I know who have succeeded with these social networking sites generally just focus on a few. Although he dabbles in MySpace and Twitter, Gaffigan’s main vehicle nowadays is Facebook. Some companies prefer to build a business community on Linked-In. I know a few nerdie guys that live on a couple of technology community sites and generate leads from there by consistently responding to questions and helping users. Just because the media says it’s cool to tweat, doesn’t mean it has anything to do with your business. If you’re going to choose to use social community sites don’t spread yourself too thin. Most of the guys I know who successfully use these things pick their weapon and give it their all.
Myth #5 – Social Networking Sites Are For Marketing Your Business
Baloney. I’ve learned from other smart business owners that social communities are not for marketing. They’re for service. For example, I spoke to Mike McDermett, CEO of Freshbooks Inc. He views these places as just another way to get closer to his customers and respond to their needs. “Wherever they are, that’s where I’ll go,” he told me. By providing quick and helpful customer service through these sites he believes that he will increase loyalty and satisfaction which will ultimately result in more sales. In his own way, Gaffigan does the same. Makes sense. So whenever you hear some genius tell you that you should explore social networking “marketing” you should run the other direction. It’s the service, stupid.
Myth #6 – Social Networking Is The Thing Of The Future
Really? Some of these cool and trendy sites aren’t going to be so cool and trendy in the near future. For example, MySpace users are already declining. It was recently reported that only 30% of Twitter users actually return to use Twitter again. And remember GeoCities? Yahoo’s shutting it down. A lot of business owners aren’t thrilled about committing a bunch of time and resources to a vanishing trend. Maybe social networking is a permanent phenomenon. But that doesn’t mean the main players today will be the main players tomorrow.
So should a business owner use social media sites in his business? Maybe. But then again maybe other customer service approaches make more sense – like newsletters, phone calls and support, seminars, partnering, etc. Just because the media has determined that social networking is “in” doesn’t mean that your customers are there.
It’s your choice. Just like the Vegetarian Hot Pocket, which according to Gaffigan, “is for those people who don’t like to eat meat, but would still like diarrhea.”