How small business can keep social media cowboys at bay

By Fiona Graham
Technology of business reporter, BBC News

image captionSocial networking can seem a daunting proposition to SMEs - as can staying out of the clutches of cowboy 'social media experts'

When movie rental service Netflix took the decision to split the company, forcing customers to sign up to two accounts if they wanted to both watch movies online and rent physical DVDs, it may have expected that some of its users would be a little ticked off.

What it hadn't anticipated was that those users would take to social networks like Twitter and Facebook in their thousands to complain about the move - forcing the company into a massive U-turn.

In a possibly more predictable faux pas, fast-food giant McDonald's launched a social media marketing campaign where it encouraged users to tweet happy tales about dining with the company.

Unfortunately, the #McDStories tag ended up being used to express many people's less than positive thoughts about the home of the Big Mac.

Tales of big business coming a cropper in the brave new world of social networking are becoming commonplace.

Going social

But if you're a small or medium sized business, do you need to worry about what your customers are saying about you online?

For Alex Bard of, the customer support tool launched recently by customer relationship management specialists, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

image lets SMEs deal with customers by email, social networking or telephone in one system

"The conversations are happening already. It's not in the control of small or even big business," he says.

Mr Bard quotes Amazon founder Jeff Bezos: "If you make customers unhappy in the physical world, they might each tell six friends. If you make customers unhappy on the internet, they each tell 6,000 friends."

If you do decide to participate in this conversation, then you need to make it a core part of your business, says Mr Bard.

"You don't want to put up a presence on Facebook, and some dialogue begins and you don't participate in it."

"It's the quickest way to kill that community. It's like a fire, you need to invest in that fire, you need to focus on it and let it grow in strength."

It takes a village

One company who would agree is e-commerce platform Ethical Community.

Friends and co-founders Jason Dainter and Liam Patterson met at university where Mr Patterson was studying environmental sciences.

image captionEthical Community now sells around 7,000 products

"My co-founder Liam was coming across a lot of these stalls in green and eco-friendly markets where products were cheaper than on the High Street, better than on the High Street, but difficult to find," says Mr Dainter.

"There was an obvious need to fill this gap."

The company provides an e-commerce platform for independent sellers that aims to recreate that market stall feeling.

The pair soon found their customers wanted to know more about the products, and the people that sold them.

"We're all about stories and people, so it's a pretty good combination for social media," says Mr Dainter.

"Facebook is a big part of our strategy and Twitter as well. We want to promote the idea that there's a living breathing person behind each thing we sell, and social media is a great way to do that."

Making connections

For high-end denim retailer MiH social media has helped it launch its online presence.

image captionMiH originally traded as Made In Heaven in the 1970s and 80s and was worn by the likes of Jane Birkin and Farah Fawcett

The company's denim is sold in high-end department stores such as Saks and Harrods, as well as specialist boutiques. The website is its first solo outing.

"Since going online we've basically doubled our business every season," says Guusje Wentrup, the company's e-commerce and marketing coordinator.

Social media has proved to be a crucial driver for the brand, adds director of sales Caroline Tighe.

"We've been active on Twitter and Facebook for about four years, but it was only when the e-commerce site launched that it became so important, because it's now all about driving traffic to our website. It gave real purpose to it."

The company uses Facebook, Twitter and image-based networks Instagram and Pinterest.

image captionRichard Beattie says firms really have to focus their social media efforts

Ms Tighe adds: "People use the different platforms for very different reasons, so the way we speak to people on each platform is very different depending on why they are there."

Richard Beattie of social relationship management specialists Vitrue recommends this type of focused approach.

"I think the key is to be hugely relevant - that's the key to marketing anyway," he says.

"Going broad-brush I predict you will get increasingly less rewarding results, less return on your investment"

"Whether you are a solicitor in Henley or a fashion retailer in Soho, or a cheese maker in the hills of Provence - it provides you with an opportunity to find consumers rather than leaving your consumers to find you."

Small packages

But should your brand-spanking-new start-up worry quite so much about being so focused?

"It's important to find the [social network] that works for your brand," says My Book Corner's Emma Perry.

"They've all got their separate identities, audiences and manner of using them. It becomes a matter of exploring each one and analysing which works well for you. Facebook is where the majority of my demographic tends to be."

My Book Corner's website provides interviews with authors, reviews of children's books, and lets users post their own reviews and talk about what they're reading.

"I started off slowly just to get an idea of how it worked from a business point of view," she says.

"The first small hurdle is to gain 25 'likes', once you've achieved that then the page name is yours. Social media is very immediate. You'll get an instant response to what you've posted, or not, as the case may be!"

And there are other advantages.

"I used Twitter to connect to some great authors ... [and] from a search engine point of view, it also helps with the elusive Google ranking results."

Ask the experts?

Facebook, Twitter,, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn... the proliferation of social networks to the uninitiated can seem bewildering.

Companies like and Vitrue are among those that offer software tools that let businesses manage social media interactions, which can be useful as your business grows.

But what about the huge numbers of so-called "social media experts" swimming around the internet ready to take your money, promising social media stardom, eagerly pointing to their own huge follower tally?

Author and founder of social media marketing and PR strategy specialists The Geek Factory Peter Shankman is scathing.

"Like any other industry, too many snake-oil salesmen show up preying on those without the knowledge to differentiate smart advice from classic BS, unfortunately. "

So how can businesses make sure the people they deal with are reputable?

image captionPeter Shankman say firms should see social media as another marketing tool

Mr Shankman adds: "First question to ask: explain to me what you've done for other companies and walk me through how your actions have specifically generated additional revenue for them.

"That right there should eliminate 95% of the people out there calling themselves social media experts."

Mr Shankman is quick to point out that in essence, engaging your customers using social media is just another form of marketing.

"It does allow you to reach your customers in a different way, and utilise their loyalty to you to increase your PR and overall, your revenue, but it's simply another facet of marketing."

For Alex Bard of, becoming an expert yourself and using the right tools is the answer.

"You start by just engaging. At the end of the day we're all human."

"Social media is just a different way that we interact with one another. It's just like you and I having a conversation with one another, it just happens that it's more publicly viewed."

Ethical Community's Jason Dainter recommends using online resources like Appsumo to get up to speed on the basics.

"It's the only real way you don't have the wool pulled over your eyes. There are quite a few services out there. It's not that expensive now to get up to speed.

The company does use a social media expert - but in bringing him on board they were careful to put him through his paces first.

"We asked him to come up with five to 10 tweets. We asked intelligent questions to weed out those who were perhaps more focused on sell sell sell."

For Peter Shankman, your customers are central to a successful social media strategy.

"Listen first. Then listen again. Then respond.

"Be aware of where your audience is, and how they like to be reached - find out what outlets they utilise, and hit them there.

"Respect them. Having an audience, or customers, is a privilege, not a right - just like wearing spandex."

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